The Carolina Panthers are not doing it with style points. The reality is this team just continues to log victories without any need for the catch-stat performances the current aberration of the game greatly favors.
The Panthers are 7-0 and are just good at football.
As the Packers come off a surprisingly poor performance against the Broncos that Cheeseheads everywhere hope was a mirage, they collide with that one team in the NFL that wins much more on collective rather than star performance. Somehow, someway the Panthers are the fourth-highest scoring team in the NFL. Yet one of the safest bets in non-Carolina markets around the country is asking someone to name all the offensive contributors for the Panthers.
Nevertheless, they are still a huge threat to a Packers team looking to keep a speed bump from decomposing into a slide.
It can’t be smoke and mirrors — the NFL has no endorsement deal for either of those things. So how does this Panthers offense get it done?
Cam Newton is the unquestioned star of the Panthers offense, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get 400-yard passing games with barrels of touchdown passes. His reputation for wildly athletic scrambles from the pocket and big, downfield throws after escaping pressure are well-earned and still a serious threat. Containing Newton in the pocket and not allowing him to run wild for big gains on pass plays is an obvious key for n defense, and will be no different for the Packers.
But the more important development to understand for a defense preparing for the 2015 Panthers offense is that Cam isn’t just Cam the running quarterback — he’s a bonafide running back option for Carolina.
“But wait . . . aren’t those basically one and the same?” Not exactly.
Skillful scrambling quarterbacks are one thing in the NFL — there are several of those. But quarterbacks who audible and call their own numbers as direct-snap ball-carriers are an entirely different animal because it significantly changes the blockers a defensive front has to account for to have proper fits and not get gashed.
The following example shows arithmetic on the defense’s right that would normally close off that side as a run option. But with Newton at quarterback, that side is actually still very alive because the running backs are simply used as lead blockers — often without any read-option element (below).
What this means in live action is if the Packers aren’t able to hold Newton to modest gains on these kinds of plays (three yards or less, essentially) they’ll need to go to eight-man boxes to make sure they aren’t short a gap in their run front.
This Panthers pass offense isn’t one that sits back and picks a defense apart with 45 throws a game, but if they can induce a defense into eight-man boxes through these unusual running scheme plays, the passing game and those wide receivers whose names you barely know fast become open for business.
NO EDGE, NO CHANCE
This is a relatively simple theme that shows up for many teams in the NFL, but it’s particularly important against Carolina because of the collection of dynamic runners they have in their backfield. Running back Jonathan Stewart can run with power, but time and again throughout this season he’s surprised an edge defender responsible for “setting the edge” of the defense with his bounce-out ability (see below).
Green Bay has good symmetry and athleticism on the edges of their defense with outside linebackers Julius Peppers and Nick Perry, but so do many teams. The big trap teams fall into against the Panthers offense is getting “nosy” — playing against the Carolina edge blockers too tight so that defenders don’t really have leverage on either Stewart or Newton when they take off to the outside with their surprising burst.
Securing the edges of both the passing pocket and the run-blocking front are something that the Packers have to mind every snap throughout the game. The Panthers have a quirky habit of hitting their head against the wall to no avail for several snaps until somebody gets nosy on the edge and then blasting off a game-breaking run.
ICE THE BLITZ
The Packers are one of those teams that loves to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks with creative rush schemes. One of the biggest aspects of Cam’s game that’s grown in 2015 is his ability to stay calm under pressure and either deliver a quality ball or scorch that pressure with his feet. It’s probably illegal to admit as much, but Newton is far better at this critical aspect of big-time quarterbacking than the Wilsons and Lucks of the world.
If the Packers want to rely heavily on the blitz against Newton, they’re playing with fire. Because of his rare size and cannon arm, he shows great patience when the rush comes, willing to take the hit and still throw a strike under duress (below).
Newton’s pre- and post-snap diagnosis of pressure schemes is miles ahead of where it was just a couple years ago. He’s still apt to make a mistake, but are plenty of examples on tape of him doing so without a thinned secondary due to a pressure scheme. Especially since his receiving targets aren’t world-beaters, the decision to put less people where he’ll be throwing the ball is the kind of decision that gets you beat against this particular team.
OVERLOAD WITH OLSEN
Because the Panthers are so insistent on winning on the ground, a super-skilled tight end that can block and catch is the perfect compliment. Greg Olsen is one of those rare players who never comes off the field and really excels in all aspects of his job. He’s not a glass-eater in run-game blocking like Rob Gronkowski, but he’s proficient enough that his location in the formation is no key on the direction of the play. The Panthers are more than willing to put the point of attack in the run game right behind him.
Because he’s a significant player in the run game, jamming him in the passing game becomes more problematic for linebackers because they have to honor their line and backfield keys and not get caught chasing Olsen — who may be blocking.
The Panthers offense clicks at its highest level when Olsen gets involved in the passing game, both as a vertical seam threat and as a sticks player on third downs. The example below shows Olsen’s ability to threaten the deep part of the field through the seam and simple out jump defensive backs for 50-50 balls.
If there’s a single pass catcher on the Panthers offense that the Packers must give extra attention in coverage, it’s Olsen. A blunted Panthers running game with controlled tight end passing production is a recipe for success — a recipe that other teams are surely aware of, but thus far unable to bring to completion.
When these two elements are clicking, the wide receiving corps of Ted Ginn, Jr., Corey Brown, and Jerricho Cotchery usually go to work with timely catches. To derail the Panthers offense from this roll that they’re on, somebody is going to have to put a full game together against them. Leaving a hole in the dam in any one of these areas and defenses have inevitably drowned against them.
If the Packers can plug them all, they will be the first.