Carolina Panthers offensive line: What went wrong in 2012?


The OL are struggling, but why?

Struggling to run block, allowing too much pressure -- the Carolina Panthers' offensive line has been identified as one of the premier weak points in the team this year. An ineffective offensive scheme, paired with an injury to Ryan Kalil has left the offense with a hodge-podge of inexperienced starters, trying to block for a complex read-option base offense, and a quarterback with a proclivity to hold onto the ball too long. This feedback loop has been prevalent this season to dramatic effect. A lot has changed since 2011, but some of the offensive line shifts may surprise you.

In order to look deeper at what makes the offensive lines tick, the folks at Football Outsiders have a great breakdown of blocking minutia in their 2011 and 2012 line rankings.

Pass Blocking

Ryan Kalil is one of the best pass blocking centers in the NFL -- he's on IR. Couple this with the switch from Travelle Wharton, to raw pass-blocking rookie Amini Silatolu, and finish with Jeff Byers at right guard, and you have a scenario that is rife for Cam Newton to be running for his life.

Yes, the offensive line have been bad, and the pass blocking this season has been unacceptable, but it's not nearly as bad as you might think when compared to 2011.

Year Pass Protection Ranking Adjusted Sack Rate
2011 21st 7.2%
2012 25th 7.8%

The offensive line is worse, but not nearly to the magnitudes one might believe based on how much the offense is struggling. Being in the bottom third is abysmal, there's no getting around that -- however, this lends credence to the belief that in terms of the passing offense, the onus falls more on Rob Chudzinski and Cam Newton, than it does the OL; purely in terms of how they've fallen off in the last twelve months.

If you're looking for a silver lining: Imagine how good the passing offense could be if the Panthers improve their offensive line, even if it's just enough to be middle of the pack.

Run Blocking

This is where the wheels completely fall off the OL. Chud's mad-capped adherence to the read-option has killed Carolina's run game, and the way the line breaks down is absolutely stunning.

Position Rank (2011) Rank (2012)
Left End 2nd 29th
Left Tackle 19th 32nd
Center/Guard 23rd 31st
Right Tackle 24th 23rd
Right End 1st 27th

It's important to understand how these positions break down. The ends refer to runs out wide, normally falling on the blocking responsibility of a tight end, or lead blocker; also, a pulling guard -- provided there's one on the play. The tackles refer purely to Jordan Gross and Byron Bell. Finally, center/guard are lumped together, because as FO say:

"research so far shows no statistically significant difference between how well a team performs on runs listed middle, left guard, and right guard."

The eight ranking drop in the center/guard runs is understandable, and largely attributable to Ryan Kalil's absence. This created a drain on the line, Hangartner left his position, and Jeff Byers entered the fray. What's really problematic is how poorly the Panthers are blocking on the edges, which is destroying any big-play potential on option plays. This is compounded with the RBs being unable to get yards in space (falling from 1st to 26th in open-field yards), and we have a situation that has killed the run game.

Is this a product of play calling? Let's take a look.

Run Direction Run Percentage (2011) Run Percentage (2012)
Left End 15% 14%
Left Tackle 11% 9%
Center/Guard 57% 60%
Right Tackle 10% 6%
Right End 7% 11%

At most we're looking at a four-percent swing in any one direction, not overwhelming by any stretch of the imagination. Furthermore, as much as the perception is that the Panthers don't use their running backs, they're on pace for 302 RB carries -- last year they had 307.

What did we learn?

In short -- not much.

There's no simple answer for why the offense is failing like it has. One could blame the read-option as the source of the woes, and it's largely to blame -- but the problem runs deeper, and is solved less simply.

In terms of pass blocking, and play direction, we haven't seen any huge falloff from 2011 to now, except in how individual linemen are performing. Jordan Gross has fallen off completely as a run blocker, down from 19th to 32nd, but it's the lack of production on toss, sweep, and option-pitch plays that has completely killed the run offense. Jeremy Shockey is not an elite blocker, but he was better than Greg Olsen or Gary Barnidge; putting Ben Hartsock in sells the offense short, as he's not a reliable pass catcher.

My assertion is that the problems are largely due to personnel, especially in the TE position. The Panthers are running 25% of their RB runs to the edges, yet averaging 28th in production when last year they were the best in the league. The big-play potential of runs in open space has dissolved, with neither Jonathan Stewart, nor DeAngelo Williams being able to make people miss in open space, as we've seen in the past.

The best idea moving forward is a good, old-fashioned talent upgrade. Jordan Gross is still a great pass blocker, always has been, but there needs to be a way to help him on the left side of the line. If it means getting a do-everything tight end to support him, that needs to be done. Geoff Hangartner is the perfect 'Jack of all Trades' offensive lineman that every team needs, but the Panthers are desperate for a big, mauling, right guard to open holes. Amini Silatolu will develop, there have been enough flashes to see he's wasn't a wasted pick, but he has to be paired with a more physical RG. Byron Bell has a future in the league, especially if he can continue to grow. I'm not convinced he'll ever be an elite starter, but he's certainly good enough.

That's my two-step solution: Get an in-line blocking TE who can catch better than Hartsock, and get an upgrade at right guard. Do those two things in the 2013 off-season, and the offensive line will improve leaps and bounds. The allure of getting a future left tackle will be there, but it might behoove the Panthers to simply give Gross a little more help, get a really good guard in the second round (there will be plenty), and simply buttress the line, rather than overhauling it completely.

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