Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers' offense opened the 2012 NFL season with a thud, struggling to generate anything in a 16-10 loss at Tampa Bay.
The Panthers were the fifth highest scoring team in football last season, and Newton blew through the rookie QB record books. So, what went wrong in Week 1 this year?
Blame the Panthers' misery on a combination of aggressive defense from the Bucs ... and some extremely odd play calling from Carolina's own offensive coaching staff. Let's Break It Down:
The problems for the Panthers started immediately when they could not get their run game going -- DeAngelo Williams rushed twice on Carolina's first three plays for a total of minus-7 yards, then did not get another carry until the second half.
The Panthers' first play was a zone-read option, meaning that Newton makes the decision whether to hand off to his running back or keep the ball for himself. He gave it to Williams, and the Bucs converged ...
Would this play have turned out better if Newton had held onto the football? Another glimpse at the picture above shows that the backside defensive end was blocked and one of Carolina's receivers had crashed down to help seal the linebackers -- both signs that Newton may have been able to turn the corner to his left.
Instead, he handed off to Williams, who lost four yards.
Two plays later, with Tampa Bay showing an almost identical look up front, and Carolina flipping Williams now to Newton's right as opposed to his left -- Newton made the same read and handed off to Williams. That play resulted in a three-yard loss.
The Panthers basically abandoned the run after that, including letting Newton go on the ground. Essentially, by throwing seven defenders into the box and stuffing Williams early, the Buccaneers made Carolina -- and more importantly, Newton -- one-dimensional.
Carolina countered on its opening possession by taking advantage of the space behind Tampa Bay's pressuring linebackers. On the Panthers' second play of the game, Newton play-faked the zone-read to Williams, drew the linebackers and a safety in, and dumped one over the middle to an open Greg Olsen.
Newton completed that pass for 20 yards and, after Williams' second negative rush, nearly hooked up with Olsen for another solid gain over the middle; Olsen dropped that one.
Tampa Bay quickly adjusted to Newton's over-the-middle pass strategy. With Carolina spending a great deal of the day in three-receiver looks, the Buccaneers played a ton of nickel and dime defense -- they were in one or the other for 77 percent of Carolina's plays, according to Pro Football Focus.
But it wasn't just a basic zone or cover-two defense that Tampa Bay employed. Instead, in an effort to wipe out Newton's options over the middle, the Buccaneers frequently changed their look just before the snap, dropping a safety deep in cover-one coverage (here it's Mark Barron) and diving a second safety forward (Ahmad Black in this example) as either another blitzer or a "robber." The robber coverage, basically, plants a defender short in zone coverage in the middle of the field with a deep safety behind him.
When Tampa Bay utilized that look, this is what Newton would see up the middle of the field:
One of Newton's two interceptions came on a modified version of this setup -- Ronde Barber backpedaled deep just before the snap, while Mark Barron ran up and showed blitz before sliding out to cover Williams in the flat. Barber jumped a pass attempt for Brandon LaFell and picked off a deflected ball.
The biggest problem for Carolina up against this Tampa Bay defense was that it allowed the defense to dictate what happened. The Panthers quickly tossed the run game into the trash, then more or less eliminated routes over the middle after the Bucs started shifting their safeties.
But those plays were still there, if Carolina had wanted them. Take a look at the overhead shot from one of the plays in which Tampa Bay blitzed a safety ...
There is a huge, 15-yard gap between the line of scrimmage and Tampa Bay's second, deep safety. Not one of the Panthers' routes on this particular play, however, headed to that vacated area.
The Panthers also seemed stubbornly set on having Newton try to beat Tampa Bay with his arm, as opposed to his feet. The Buccaneers did a solid job with front-four pressure and containment (more on that shortly), but the opportunities to run were still there.
Aside from the zone-reads, which resulted in zero Newton runs, the Panthers called just two QB-specific run plays. The first was a draw that gained 13 yards (though a holding penalty wiped it out). Even with Tampa Bay stacking eight defenders in the box and rushing six, Carolina was able to carve out space for Newton by outmanning the Buccaneers on the left side of the line.
A frustrating development for the Panthers was that the Buccaneers were able to encircle Newton whether they used a normal four-man rush or brought extra bodies. That's key for Tampa Bay going forward, including in Week 2 against the Giants, because Eli Manning will gladly throw across the middle if the Buccaneers stack the box as they did in Week 1.
There's a good chance that Tampa Bay will play a little softer, at least with its safeties, since Manning can be so much more dangerous through the air.
But here's what I'm talking about in terms of Tampa Bay containing Newton. First, with the four-man front:
And here, with a six-man attack:
In both cases, Newton has time and a pocket to step up into to throw -- but he has no other options. There are no seams up the middle, no space to bounce outside and take off.
And the longer Tampa Bay was able to contain Newton -- and the longer Carolina neglected its own run game -- the more that Newton simply locked into his role as a passer.
This screen shot comes from a Newton-to-Steve Smith pass, which resulted in a difficult completion and big gain. But check out where Smith is when Newton throws the ball (almost completely covered) and notice how much space there is to Newton's blindside.
Had he turned and run there, he may have taken it to the house.
We don't know exactly what Carolina's game plan was heading into Sunday, but based on what the Panthers showed in action, it appeared to be this: Beat Tampa Bay with the deep ball. Newton managed to do that on a couple of occasions, but that's far from the perfect approach for this Carolina offense.
The Panthers are a dangerous team on the ground, with a solid run-blocking line and perhaps the most athletic quarterback in the league. But they allowed themselves to be boxed in by Tampa Bay's pressure early, then never adjusted as the game went on.
Expect a much different approach in Week 2 against the Saints, especially if Jonathan Stewart is healthy enough to join Williams in the backfield. Robert Griffin III torched New Orleans' pass defense last week -- he did not do so, though, by just dropping back and bombing away. Rather, the Redskins worked in their ground game and took advantage of the short, quick routes the Saints gave them.
Those routes could have been there for Carolina against Tampa Bay, too, had the Panthers chosen to find them. They instead planted Newton in the pocket and asked him to look over the top.
The plan backfired, and Tampa Bay deserves a lot of the credit.