Allow me to preface this post by saying that I am not a football expert. I am not a coach or even a former player at any level, just a fan of the game like many of you. That being said, I cannot begin to express how developing my knowledge of football beyond the usual "fandom" has enabled me to enjoy not just our beloved Panthers but any football game on an entirely new level. Through this and possibly future posts, I hope to pass along some of the things I have learned about the game using examples from Panthers game film. I know that visitors to this site range from the casual fan to die-hard football heads that know far more than I, so I hope to learn as well as teach. Hopefully, by the beginning of next season we will all be better fans because of it. The journey begins after the jump...
First, just to clarify for those who aren’t familiar, I will be referring to offensive personnel packages through number designations that indicate the number of running backs and tight ends on the field. For example, 12 personnel indicates 1 back and 2 tight ends. Assuming there are the standard 5 offensive lineman (and of course, one quarterback) that leaves 2 wide receivers. Here is an example of the Panthers in one of their 12 personnel formations against the Packers
Here you can see the two receivers on the outside, two tight ends on the right side of the offensive line, and the one back behind Newton.
Now another example that we will take a bit more in-depth. Let’s look at Newton’s first TD pass as a pro against Arizona in week one. The Panthers are in 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) although with Olsen split out to the right it is more like a 4 receiver set.
Here's a link to the play on NFL.com if you need a refresher
First, lets have a look at the pre-snap read.
You can see there’s lots of motion on both sides. There isn’t a single defender with their hand on the ground. This is a zone blitzing strategy intended to confuse the protection assignments for the offense by not declaring which players are coming after the QB and which are dropping into coverage. As you see, Greg Olsen is sent into a short motion but winds up right back where he started. This is to force the defense to show their hand a bit. Because a defender didn’t follow Olsen across the formation, Newton knows they aren’t covering him man-to-man. You also see the strong safety (24) start at the line of scrimmage but end up deep over the left side of the offense. As he does this, the other safety rolls over and ends up stacked over the cornerback covering Smith. The fact that they had three defenders over the side of the field containing just one receiver (even if it is Smitty) was a strong indicator that a DB blitz was coming from that side. Cam also sees this, and indicates a shift in the pass protection to his left.
Now let’s move to the snap of the ball.
Although it is a blitz, the Cardinals are actually only bringing four defenders at the quarterback. Because the protection was shifted to the left, there are plenty of blockers to keep Cam clean until he sees Smith open. This part of the play is key, you can tell that Stewart gets there just in time to keep his QB from getting hit. You also have to love this about Cam, this was his first game in the NFL and he stood tall and trusted his blockers. Amazing poise for a rookie, but we are used to seeing that by now. So, good pre-snap read, blitz is picked up, how how did Smitty get so wide open? Lets look at that pre-snap again.
The DB lined up opposite Smith is blitzing. This leaves the free safety responsible for the short zone, but as you will see, he expects help from the strong safety over the top.
As Smith is streaking down the field here you can see that the coverage is facing back towards the QB (indicating a zone principle) and the short zone defender is giving Smith outside leverage. This is just before Cam decides to throw the ball, and the safety is still in pretty good position to make a play. What happens next is just mental error on the part of number 24.
As Cam releases the ball he jumps underneath to cover the short middle, most likely seeing Olsen coming through. Unfortunately for him (and fortunately for the Panthers) by then it is too late, Smith is gone for 77 and the score.
So that’s how it happened, please feel free to chime in through comments or the poll. The probability of me making this a continued series depends on the feedback I get.