Greg Olsen is one of the NFL's most underrated players. While Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Antonio Gates and Tyler Eifert may be some the top household names at the position, Olsen quietly finished the 2015 NFL season second in receiving yards among tight ends (1,104), fourth in receptions (77) and sixth in touchdowns (7) on the team that ran the ball more than anyone else.
The Panthers' 6'5, 253-pound tight end has emerged as a core offensive player in Carolina's scheme and was Cam Newton's favorite target this season as a versatile, line-up-everywhere type of weapon. He's going to be a major factor this week as Carolina looks to move past Arizona to Super Bowl 50.
Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians is acutely aware of this fact. When asked how the Cardinals plan to take Olsen out of the game on Sunday, he didn't have a real answer. "Well, that's a good question," Arians said. "We take him out of the passing game, that's about 47 percent of it, and that's our goal. That's hard to do though.
"It's funny because we played Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis, some of those guys who are split outs," he continued, meaning they primarily line up as a de facto receiver. "That's where they were catching balls. Greg Olsen is a whole new problem because he's everywhere. He is their focal point."
Because Olsen does a little of everything, it means Arizona has to be prepared to defend him in a number of different ways. Losing Tyrann Mathieu doesn't help matters, so it's likely to be a combination of the Cardinals' cornerbacks and linebackers drawing assignments based on where he lines up.
The victory over the Seahawks last Sunday was a pretty decent microcosm for how Olsen's used in Carolina's offense, so let's take a look at a few ways in which the Panthers utilized his versatility. These were all of Olsen's catches in the game, in fact.
1. Middle hook route
Olsen is a great underneath option for Cam Newton -- he's got excellent hands, good speed, good spacial awareness and he's tough. In the first quarter against Seattle, Newton found Olsen underneath on a dump off and got a first down out of it.
This is an exceedingly simple concept against an underneath zone like Seattle ran here. Just find the soft spot, turn around, find the ball and then dive forward for a solid gain.
2. Zone flood
Seattle primarily plays a cover-3, so an obvious strategy against a zone defense is to flood one area of the zone with more offensive players than defensive players. In the play below, Carolina runs one short route into the right flats, another route (Olsen's) into the deeper area toward the right sideline and then a third route into the deep third of the field toward Richard Sherman's side. Because of the additional route up the middle of the field, Earl Thomas -- the lone middle-deep defender -- has to take that, and that leaves the deeper route as Sherman's responsibility. He's put into a bind.
Watch how it plays out.
Sherman thus has to choose between 1) his ultimate mandate, which is to not get beat deep to his side, and 2) the underneath route to his sideline. He chooses the former -- the route that starts on the left and runs a shallow crosser toward the right sideline -- and that leaves Olsen wide open in the intermediate area underneath him. It's a huge gain for Carolina.
The Panthers may not be able to use this exact route combination against the Cardinals, but if Arizona runs zone concepts -- and they surely will -- Carolina will look to flood it and hope to make defenders make decisions like the one Sherman had to make above.
3. The seam route
This is a classic tight end route here from the tight slot. Olsen starts out flexed out, and Seahawks' corner Jeremy Lane sits above him about ten yards. Olsen first widens out before running up the numbers, and soon has Lane on his hip in a trailing position. Cam then puts the ball in the only spot that Olsen can get the ball. It's a perfect throw and an amazing catch.
Ridiculously amazing play.
4. Iso quick out
Teams use motion to determine a lot of things, and in this case below, it's to see whether the Seahawks will be matching up with Greg Olsen in a man or zone scheme. Kam Chancellor's reaction to Olsen's motion prior to the snap here tells Cam Newton that Chancellor is in a man coverage against his tight end. That means he's going to be getting a one-on-one situation. He trusts Olsen, who runs a good route and then uses a subtle push-off as he stems his route to get separation from Chancellor.
It's a first down. Again.
5. Chip and release
The chip-and-release is a classic tight end route and for a defense, it's hard to defend. At first, it looks like the tight end's role is in pass protection, then after chipping an oncoming pass rusher, he releases out into a route. Below, Seattle has corner DeShawn Shead in man coverage (you'll note that Richard Sherman is on the other side of the field in coverage in the slot, which is a giveaway that Seattle is in man). Newton sees this, and knows that Olsen's crossing route underneath should be a good option.
Olsen releases, and Newton hits him in stride.
Kam Chancellor gets a big hit on Olsen but Olsen picks up the first down. Yet again.
6. Delayed release
This concept is similar to the chip-and-release but in this case, it's sold a little bit longer. Here, Olsen drops back into pass protection set for a few steps before breaking off and releasing into a little flare route toward the sideline. The Seahawks simply don't account for him in their coverage -- and Cam Newton's head and shoulders fake toward his right does the trick on middle linebacker Bobby Wagner -- and as Newton comes back to his left to throw to Olsen, the versatile tight end picks up yet another first down.
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Greg Olsen finished last week's win over the Seahawks with six catches on six targets for 77 yards and a touchdown. All five of his non-touchdown catches were first downs, including two on key third down situations. As Bruce Arians noted, Olsen is a major focal point of the Panthers' offense and for the Cardinals and their coaching staff, the game plan will likely start with ways to limit what he can do.
Still, look for Newton to look to Olsen early and often, and for the Panthers to line him up and use him in a variety of ways that make it damn near impossible to defend him.