• A move back to Cam Newton’s strengths on offense, and a new approach under a first-year coordinator on defense, have made the Panthers one of the most difficult opponents to prepare for
By Andy Benoit
December 18, 2017

Aaron Rodgers’ return was the story when the Packers visited Carolina, overshadowing what would be the Panthers’ fourth victory in five weeks. When the day was over, it was the Panthers sitting at 10-4, an evolving team that has gradually found its identity.

Back in the offseason, after drafting Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel in Rounds 1 and 2, the belief was that Carolina would replace its power-based offense with a more spread out, finesse one. Skepticism circulated around the NFL. Quick-strike passing games are all the rage, but that approach doesn’t fit Cam Newton, a downfield power thrower, not a timing and rhythm, precision thrower. There was also talk about reducing Newton’s role in the rushing attack, less the 28-year-old have more offseasons like this past one, spent rehabbing a surgically repaired shoulder.

But it’s funny what a little competition can do. Once the regular season rolled around and actual wins and losses started piling up, the plan to run Newton less disappeared. In fact, his running is as prominent as ever. Newton is featured on several designed QB runs each week and, through 14 games, he’s averaging 7.7 rushes and 45 yards per contest. His running has kept Carolina’s floundering ground game above water, and it occupies the most significant chunk of the opponent’s preparation time each week. Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula have realized that to keep Newton from running is to keep him from stardom. Running is what makes him valuable. Without it (and certainly without defenses worrying about it), Newton is merely a talented but inconsistent dropback quarterback.

As for those dropbacks, they haven’t been on three-step and hastened five-step timing as much as anticipated. Rather than completely changing the offense around McCaffrey, the Panthers have incorporated the rookie back into what they already do. McCaffrey’s shifty, patient running style fits Carolina’s ground game, and it brings dimension to the backfield screen game, which the Panthers can get to off of their staple misdirection tactics.

Still, this isn’t to say McCaffrey has merely been inserted as a puzzle piece. To get McCaffrey the ball in space, the Panthers have indeed installed more spread formations and quick, defined throws. Newton’s passing remains up and down (against Green Bay his receivers, notably tight end Greg Olsen, bailed him out with some difficult short-area catches), but the seventh-year quarterback has become much sharper at reading the field before the snap. That maximizes the benefit of a mismatch piece like McCaffrey.

Still, these spread sets are a side dish, not the entrée. Newton is still asked to throw the deep-out balls and downfield seam passes that he’s often great at. Those opportunities will only expand now that Olsen is back healthy (the Packers had no answer for him down the seams on Sunday).

While we fretted about the Panthers changing their identity on offense, greater transformation has actually occurred on defense. The assumption was that first-time coordinator Steve Wilks, who had been the secondary coach, would continue what predecessor Sean McDermott did, which was play sturdy 4-3 zone coverages and blitz selectively. Instead, Wilks has blitzed more than any coordinator in the NFC. A Panthers defense that for years rushed four now rushes five—usually with the add-in player coming off the edge or slot.

Panthers’ Defense Thriving Under Steve Wilks and His Blitz-Heavy Ways

Typically, a five-man rush is adjoined by man coverage. But Wilks has the Panthers still playing mostly zone. Those zones simply have one less guy than they did under McDermott.

It’s a riskier approach, but a potentially more rewarding one. With five rushers, the offense plays more on the defense’s schedule. You can lighten your zones when your linebackers are as fast as Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson (who has missed he last two games with a foot injury). Those three can, essentially, cover the area that four typical underneath defenders would cover. The Panthers can subtly disguise their zones, and with that fifth rusher, a quarterback has less time to decipher those disguises. Against these looks on Sunday, Aaron Rodgers, who was rusty in his first action since Week 6, had less and less rhythm as the game wore on.

Rodgers also fell victim to Carolina’s defensive line, which for the second straight week saw its pass rush erupt down the stretch. Ends Julius Peppers and especially Mario Addison can win one-on-one, as can tackles Kawann Short, Star Lotulelei and even journeyman backup Kyle Love.

It’s an unconventional offense and defense in Carolina, which makes this 10-win team more threatening; Panthers opponents must prepare for things they don’t see often. If the Panthers continue to ascend from the level they’re at, opponents will be preparing for them in late January.

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