No team ran the ball more than the Panthers in 2015, and no team came close to matching the diverse, innovative, and unique schemes and styles they used in the ground game. Carolina's effectiveness on the ground starts with Cam Newton, who really is peerless when it comes to his combination of passing and running ability.
No other NFL team has a 6'5, 245-pound quarterback that can beat you with his arm, run past you like a gazelle or charge through you like a rhino with equal aplomb. More importantly, he's proven that he can stay healthy while playing his exclusive style of ball. The Panthers offense is built around Newton's unique talents, and it makes them extremely difficult to defend.
The Panthers scored more points than any other NFL team this season, and Carolina's offensive foundation is their run game. They averaged an NFL-high 32.9 rush attempts per game, tied for first in the NFL in rushing touchdowns (19), first in first downs via rushes (136), second in ground yards per game (142.6) and have played 31 straight games where they've topped 100 rushing yards.
Variety is the name of the game. "They have a really diverse running game," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said before Seattle's Divisional Round matchup with Carolina, which they ended up losing while giving up 144 rushing yards. The Panthers' first play of the game was a 59-yard run by Jonathan Stewart that Carroll said was a slight tweak of something they'd been fully prepared for. Those tweaks, along with the Cam Newton factor, make the Panthers very hard to plan for.
"It is the most [diverse run game] that we'll see in the NFL," Carroll said. "There's nobody that does more stuff, and it's basically because the quarterback is such a dynamic part of it. They're willing to run the quarterback inside, outside, lead plays, powers, all of the read [option] stuff, as well. This is the most difficult offense that we face, and it's really because Cam is such an adept player. A lot of teams have some plays that they use, but nobody relies on the quarterback to run like they do. He's got 10 touchdowns rushing this year, and those aren't quarterback sneaks at the goal line. They're from all over the place. It's the most challenging."
A book could probably be written on the Panthers' run game from this season, but Carolina's blowout victory over the Cardinals in the NFC Championship works as a good microcosm for how they win. Here's just a cross section of plays that gives you a good idea on why they're difficult to prepare for, and ultimately defend.
Read option wrinkles
The most basic Cam Newton-involved run play for the Panthers is the read option. By now, most NFL fans understand what the read option is -- Cam is reading a defensive end or defensive tackle and depending on what that defensive player does, he either hands off or runs the ball himself. It's still a mainstay for several offenses in the NFL.
What makes Carolina's offense so fun to watch is that throughout a game, the Panthers will add little tweaks to their formation, to their scheme and to their personnel, and a simple read option really becomes a whole subset of plays.
Here's one example: In this play, Carolina is in a pistol formation -- Jonathan Stewart is next to Newton on his left, and receiver Jerricho Cotchery starts the play behind Newton as a de facto running back. As the ball is snapped, Cotchery motions out to his left, which takes safety Tony Jefferson out of the play entirely. Jefferson has to respect Cotchery's motion because Cam could keep the ball and pitch it to the receiver in a triple-option look.
Instead, though, Cam hands the ball off to his first option.
Because Cam does such a good job of holding outside linebacker Markus Golden (No. 44) -- the "read defender" -- once he gives the rock to Stewart, Golden is out of position. This is textbook, and the numbers game is in Carolina's favor -- essentially five offensive linemen vs. five defenders at the line of scrimmage. Newton "blocks" the sixth defender simply by being a run threat.
This is another wrinkle that the Panthers like to use. It's called a "slice block" and you'll see tight end Greg Olsen slice across and above the formation to lay a block on what normally would be an unblocked defender in Markus Golden.
The idea here would be to normally hand off to Stewart and Olsen's block would surprise Golden, allowing Stewart to cut up the field through the gap. However, Golden breaks down so hard on the run fake, toward Stewart, that Newton keeps the football on the read option. The other result is that Olsen doesn't even see Golden until it's too late, and ends up outside the formation, ultimately thinking Stewart has the ball. However, he quickly realizes Stewart doesn't have it, and he executes an improvised block on safety Rashad Johnson (No. 26), springing Newton for a gain.
Just a heads-up play by Newton, first to see Golden cheating inside to blow up the run, then a good recovery by Olsen to block someone on the outside.
That slice block by the tight end was prominently featured in the Panthers' run game on Sunday, and the cool thing about it was that Olsen often blocked different players, depending on the way the play was drawn up. These are those subtle tweaks into the scheme that make it so hard to prepare for.
Similar to what Carolina did above with Jerricho Cotchery, and motioning him into the backfield, the Panthers like to send a receiver into motion just prior to the snap in a jet sweep type of thing, which makes it difficult for the defense to quickly diagnose where the ball has gone. Remember, there are giant human beings on the offense line, and linebackers and defensive linemen can't see through those guys.
This could be a major issue that Denver has to solve, even with some excellent athletes on their line and linebacker corps.
"Nobody has that much run game (stuff) as Carolina," NFL Network analyst and former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah said recently. "Nobody. They can really negate the speed of the defense because you can mess with their eyes. When the [Panthers] played Seattle the first time [this season], their linebackers literally couldn't find the football."
Here's an example of the type of misdirection the Panthers like to use. Again, you see the slice block by Greg Olsen, and he follows Corey Brown across the formation right after the snap. Olsen will block the normally unblocked outside force player -- in this case, Markus Golden again -- and Cam will hand off to Jonathan Stewart.
It's pretty clear from the reaction of the defense that it's difficult for them to tell where the ball has gone. The play picks up a few yards, but Arizona does a pretty good job of containing it.
That's where the tweaks come in.
Watch this play below. Here, Stewart lines up on the other side of Cam Newton -- a key change that dictates the run will be going to the other side of the formation. Otherwise, the motion from right to left comes just before the snap, and makes it tough to know where the ball is going.
Here's why the flip-flopping of the running back is important. Instead of running to his right with a keeper, Cam would run to his left, and the Newton read option fake draws Markus Golden up and away from the line of scrimmage. That leaves Greg Olsen looking for middle linebacker Kevin Minter. When Olsen kicks Minter out and the offensive line washes the Cardinals defensive line down, it's J-Stew making a cut-back, and before you know it, he's already up into the third level, taking on a safety. He beats that safety and is finally tracked down by backside players.
It's just one example of the ways in which the Panthers can make little tweaks to keep defenses on their toes.
Read option reverse
This play starts out looking like a read-option keeper by Cam Newton. The defense definitely reacts that way. Watch:
However, instead of having Cam keep the ball and take it up the gut -- which he does a lot -- he flips it to Ted Ginn, who is running an end around to the other side of the field. It works like a charm, and it doesn't hurt that the Cardinals over-pursue once he's all the way to the left sideline.
How Ginn manages to cut this back is beyond me. Great speed definitely helps, but that's just bad defense, too. There's like seven defenders that get juked out of their socks.
I like this, though, because it's a good example of using the talents of your players within the structure of your scheme. Ginn is a great punt returner because of his speed and open field moves. Use that on offense!
I'm not going to spend a lot of time on this, but Cam Newton is probably the best goal line quarterback in the history of the game. Newton has 19 career rushes from the 1-yard line, and has converted 14 of those (including one on Sunday) into touchdowns, according to ESPN Stats and Info.
I'm guessing the Panthers won't be throwing any slants from the 1-yard line in this year's Super Bowl.
Pin pull toss sweep
I really liked this concept. The Panthers do a lot of Power-O looking stuff with pulling linemen, and in this case, they use a "pin and pull" strategy with that. They send receivers Jerricho Cotchery and Devin Funchess in on the snap, along with right guard Trai Turner, to "pin" a few defensive players, then they "pull" their right tackle and center.
Newton then pitches it to Stewart for a nice gain.
Speaking of Power-O, I've been remiss in actually pointing out some of Cam's keeper runs.
"The big thing is -- and everybody loses sight of this -- I don't think people realize just how big he is until you get next to him and see him standing next to D-linemen and linebackers," an NFL linebackers coach, who used to coach in the SEC, told Bruce Feldman recently. "This isn't Robert Griffin III running around at 6'2, 220. This guy is all of 6'5, 250, and when he runs the ball, he's the one delivering blows. In the league of freak athletes, he is the freakiest athlete of them all."
Case in point:
Cam takes the designed keeper to the right, and the design is for him to follow his left guard up the crease created by downblocks by the tight end and right tackle. Mike Tolbert lays a block on the outside. When Newton sees the defense collapsing, though, he bounces it outside. Then he just powers his way forward about five yards after contact for a first down. Really an incredible play -- and that was on a third-and-10.
"You actually have to account for him in the running game," Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said recently. "Other running quarterbacks, they might run the ball a couple of times, but not that much. But he's such a big guy, he can take the pounding a normal running back can take, so you definitely have to be ready for his capability to run the ball too."
That was apparent on the very next play.
Quarterback buck sweep
This really was just the pièce de résistance of an amazingly called game by Mike Shula. It's called the Quarterback Buck Sweep. It's got those pin-and-pull elements to it, and the center and right guard pull right to block upfield for Newton. The quick hesitation that Newton shows -- looking to dump it off toward Mike Tolbert to the left -- helps sell the fake and take several defenders out of the play.
From there, it's Newton being a freak of nature and getting a couple nice blocks.
* * *
This was just a smattering of run plays, but the bottom line is that with Cam Newton as a legit threat as a runner -- one that's extremely difficult to tackle at that -- the Panthers can do a hell of a lot of things in their run game. And they do.
The Broncos have probably the best defense in the NFL and one of the strongest pass rushes we've seen in years. It's a very interesting matchup in that, one great way to mitigate and negate that ridiculously strong pass rush -- one that hit Tom Brady an absurd 20 times last week -- is to run right at it, which I'm sure the Panthers will do. Look for Newton to be a big factor here -- running power up the gut, running sweeps outside and generally making things difficult for Denver as a threat to run in the read option.
If the Panthers can use their Cam Newton-powered run game to keep the Broncos' pass rush at bay, they've got a great chance at winning the Super Bowl.