The Panthers Will Run for Their Lives
Amidst all of the laughter and ridicule directed towards the downtrodden NFC South last year, many failed to notice that the Panthers’ playoff run—which carried them to the Divisional Round—included a five-game winning streak. Okay, they weren’t the most glamorous of wins: a blowout over the Saints was followed by victories over the lowly Bucs, a Browns team led by Johnny Manziel (who got hurt in the second quarter and was replaced by Brian Hoyer), the Falcons and their offensive line woes and, most spectacularly, in the Wild-Card round over a Cardinals team that was down to its third-string quarterback. Still, wins are wins in the NFL, and five in a row during the winter months should never be scoffed at.
Propagating Carolina’s hot streak was offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s reestablished commitment to a multidimensional running game. It was a very collegiate approach, almost as if Shula and head coach Ron Rivera had come to terms with what their Panthers really are: a team led by an immensely talented but scattershot quarterback who has the arm talent to make mesmerizing throws but the unrefined mechanics and lack of discipline to eventually offset them. That’s Cam Newton The Passer. There’s also Newton The Runner, a much more stable threat who, like the good side of Newton The Passer, can swing a game.
Shula built around Newton The Runner. That was smart because Newton The Passer was also hamstrung by a lack of speed at wide receiver and a porous offensive line whose struggles were most glaring on the edges in obvious passing situations. Stretching the field was all but impossible. A passing attack that can’t stretch the field is one that doesn’t stress a defense. Or, it doesn’t stress a defense the way Newton’s legs can, anyway. With zone-read-option at the forefront, Shula constructed a multifaceted, deception-based attack, featuring the threat of Newton, the power and balance of running back Jonathan Stewart, the improved mobility of the interior offensive line (center Ryan Kalil was always stellar; undrafted rookie guard Andrew Norwell got better) and, often, the possibility of a misdirection play design. The misdirections involved tactics like wide receiver sweep options (creating a triple option in the zone-read game), backside tight end screens and, when more aggressive, shotgun play-action.
The results: an average of 197 rushing yards an outing for the Panthers during their five-game winning streak, 94 more than they’d averaged up to the point of being 3-8-1.
Rivera’s and Shula’s acceptance of what the Panthers are seemed to stick over the offseason and was adopted by GM Dave Gettleman. This past June, Newton was signed to a five-year, $103.8 million deal, $41 million of it guaranteed. His receiving corps was not infused with speed, but rather, with another king-sized possession target, 6-4, 230-pound rookie Devin Funchess (a second-round pick), who was set to join last year’s first-round pick, the 6-5 Kelvin Benjamin (now out with a torn ACL). This also represents a furthered commitment to Newton. Both receivers have the catching radius to accommodate Newton’s vacillating accuracy. Neither is particularly quick, but that’s not a problem because Newton is not a precision-based anticipation passer who hits receivers immediately out of their breaks.
At running back, Panthers brass doubled-down on the gifted but injury-prone Jonathan Stewart by releasing his longtime complement, DeAngelo Williams. Expect Fozzy Whittaker and Mike Tolbert to contribute even more as ancillary weapons; each man runs better than his body type suggests and each can contribute in the short-area passing game (including screens). Last season they combined for 86 touches; this year it will be closer to 150. (The Palmetto and Tarheel states just collectively shrugged.)
As far as the offensive line goes, Gettleman and his staff might think they made an upgrade by signing Michael Oher shortly after his release from Tennessee. Oher will replace last year’s stone-footed starting left tackle, Byron Bell, who was allowed to walk in free agency. If this is an upgrade, it’s marginal at best. Oher struggled mightily in pass protection against both power and quickness last season, and there’s little from the rest of his career that suggests things will suddenly be different now that he’s in Carolina. Moving from right tackle back to the blind side (sorry) won’t ameliorate his tendency to get too light on his feet and bend at the waist. Plus, right tackle still remains an issue for the Panthers. Mike Remmers and Nate Chandler are battling for the rights to, most likely, be replaced by fourth-round rookie Daryl Williams later in the season.
With the 2015 Panthers offense built exactly like the 2014 offense, Shula must continue to embrace a collegiate style rushing attack, with Newton as the fulcrum. It’s a little surprising the Panthers did not try to amplify this approach by adding a perimeter speed threat to expand their triple-option element. (Currently Jerricho Cotchery, who is just barely faster than you and me, has provided the sweep action. Imagine what having someone like, say, even a Dexter McCluster, would do for this ploy. Maybe the Panthers roll the dice with Ted Ginn here?)
Things look eerily similar to 2014 on defense, as well. Despite needing a pass rusher to give some teeth back to their 4-3 base and nickel zones, Gettleman used his first-round pick on Shaq Thompson, whom the team hopes can become the next Thomas Davis. That’d make more sense if the actual Thomas Davis weren’t still playing at a high enough level to have just warranted a two-year extension. (The punishing hitter will now earn $18 million over the next three seasons; not bad for a 32-year-old with three ACL surgeries to his name.)
In the secondary, the only change was the addition of longtime Bears corner Charles Tillman, who can still compete given that Cover-3 and especially Cover-2 zones don’t require a great deal of quick-twitch and speed. Still, a 34-year-old corner rarely redefines a defense. Because of the nature of their scheme, the Panthers don’t spend much on the defensive backfield. But this brings us back to defensive line, which hasn’t been the same since Greg Hardy left (his final appearance for the Panthers was Week 1 last September). Why didn’t Gettleman make a move to reignite it?
So, for those wondering how much Carolina’s late 2014 surge was a product of their own excellence and how much of it was from a softer schedule, this season will provide an answer. This year’s club is simply a more extreme version of what it already was.
• THE MAN BEHIND JAMEIS WINSTON: The play-calling of offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, the biggest assistant coach hiring of 2015, will determine whether Winston sinks or swims. | FALCONS WILL GO AS FAR AS DAN QUINN TAKES THEM: Putting together a winner starts on defense, where the ex-Seahawks coordinator will put a Seattle stamp on the unit.| THE EVOLUTION OF THE SAINTS PASSING GAME: Jimmy Graham is gone and Drew Brees’ arm strength is starting to tail off. Their roster changes hint at the inevitable: The Saints plan to move away from the vertical passing game that has defined the Payton-Brees era.
Panthers Nickel Package
1. Tight end Greg Olsen has become the second most important player on offense. Olsen is key in the Panthers’ staple 3 x 1 set, which the overwhelming majority of their intermediate passing game comes out of. In this formation, Olsen frequently aligns as the X-iso—the “1” receiver on the weak side—where he has proven he can beat cornerbacks. Olsen has also become a better run-blocker, particularly when there’s misdirection-based movement involved. Kudos to the ninth-year pro; run-blocking was something even his most ardent supporters didn’t originally believe he could do.
2. The Kelvin Benjamin injury is huge. While he needed a lot of refinement as a route runner (he failed on too many in-breaking patterns as a rookie), Benjamin was still this team’s only viable perimeter receiving weapon. He provided Newton a valuable margin for error, as he could make contested catches on inaccurate balls. This offense has nothing close to a wide receiver defenses must tilt their coverages towards.
3. The biggest difference between the seven-win 2014 Panthers and the 12-win 2013 Panthers was run defense. The ’14 Panthers gave up 25 more yards per game on the ground. Inconsistency at defensive tackle was the primary reason. Star Lotulelei must bounce back from a down year (he got slower off the ball), Kawann Short must maintain 16 weeks of the dominance that he flashed only early in the season, and top backup Colin Cole must improve at holding ground. Luke Kuechly is a great middle linebacker—the game’s best, in fact—but he can’t flourish with D-linemen getting pushed back into him.
4. The loss of Greg Hardy can’t be understated. With Charles Johnson having good (but only good) burst, Hardy was the engine of Carolina’s four-man rush. He was also valuable to the nickel package, something Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott like to use often as they trust Kuechly and Thomas Davis to cover a lot of ground as the only two ’backers on the field. In nickel, Hardy could align inside, where he penetrated against significantly less athletic guards, set up Carolina’s myriad stunt concepts (which abated in his absence last season) and provide a run-stopping presence that’s critical if you want to play with five DBs against an opponent’s base personnel.
5. If Tillman can be a quality No. 3 corner outside, Bené Benwikere, who should start in the base 4-3, can go back to playing the slot, solving this defense’s greatest problem from a year ago. Given safety Roman Harper’s mediocrity in coverage, the Panthers’ zone concepts cannot afford to have vulnerabilities inside.