Last year the Panthers Offense received a defibrillation in the form of Rookie QB Cam Newton and Offensive Coordinator Rob Chudzinski. Offensive numbers soared, as the Panthers were able to take advantage of defensive mismatches and exploit them along the way to a near masterful season. Newton would go onto break numerous records, including the rookie passing record with 4,051 yards. Perhaps even more impressive, the Panthers had three rushers accumulate over 700 yards rushing (Newton, D.Williams, J.Stewart), a record in its own right.
However, the Panthers Coaching Staff won't/can't sit on their laurels after last season's performance, as opposing coordinators have spent the offseason scheming on how to slow down Newton, and tactically neutralize some facets of Chud's Offense. As such, the Panthers may look to make some changes with personnel grouping, especially so, after the acquisition of H-Back Mike Tolbert.
Before delving into the numerals of the what the Panthers did last season, here's the definition of each personnel grouping.
11: 1 RB, 1 TE
12: 1 RB, 2 TE's
21: 2 RB's, 1 TE
22: 2 RB's, 2 TE's
10: 1 RB, 0 TE's
00: 0 RB's, 0 TE's
The first number of a personnel grouping represents the number of running backs on the field, while the second number represents the number of tight ends on the field. In addition, by knowing the number of RB's and TE's on the field, you are able to discern the amount of WR's involved, in concert with the mandatory 1 QB and 5 OL.
When the defense sees that the offense lines up in a 22 (1 WR), it hints towards a running play, or say the offense lines up in a 00 (5 WR's) it means a pass is imminent.
By tracking the number of times that an opponent runs a personnel group, and whether they run a passing play or a running play, the defense is able to detect the tendencies of an opponent and counteract them.
Per Football Outsiders, in 2011 the Panthers operated out of the 11 personnel group 48% of their offensive downs. The personnel group was very successful, averaging 7 yards per play, at a DVOA of 34.4%. The formation offered a lot of autonomy to the Panthers Offense and questions for opposing defenses. With the 11 grouping the Panthers were able to hide the play call, as Chud and the offense would conduct different formations and alignments. The grouping provided Chudzinski and the Offense with a plethora of possibilities.
However, one noticeable pattern has arisen; the Panthers passed the ball 76% of the time in the 11 grouping. And, just as Football Outsiders has access to this information, so do the 32 teams of the NFL.
Furthermore, the Panthers utilized the 12 personnel grouping 23% of their offensive snaps. The 12 grouping averaged 6 yards per play with a DVOA of 8.5%, and had a reasonably balanced rate of 42% runs to 58% passes. Because of the acquisitions of Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey, the Panthers had two pass catching TE's that would draw respect from opposing LB's/S's. Similar to the 11 grouping, the Panthers were able to line up their two TE's all over the field, on the line, off tackle, out wide, in the backfield, etc... The versatility of the TE's allowed for two pass catching blankets for Cam Newton, as well as two more blockers for Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams.
Yet with Shockey's (possible/likely) departure, the Panthers will rely on Gary Barnidge to pick up the slack. Barnidge hasn't seen an expanded role yet in his playing career, and it's likely the staff will ease him into the role of #2 TE.
The egress of Shockey, and the signing of FB/RB/HB Mike Tolbert, in tangent with the necessity for annual change might be indicative of a change from the 11 personnel grouping to a 21 personnel grouping. Football Outsiders tells us that the Panthers used the 21 grouping 15% of downs, averaging 5.9 yards per play, with a DVOA of 15.1%. The 21 was used with fairly balanced use: 57% runs and 43% passes.
Much like the 12 & 11 groupings, the 21 provides a lot of room to work for Rob Chudzinski. As we saw towards the twilight of the 2011 season, opposing defense began respecting Cam Newton's arm and dropping men back in coverage, rather than blitzing them as they did earlier in the season. Therefore, Chud was able to unleash the vaunted run game that had been swamped during the first part of the year.
Placing Tolbert and Williams/Stewart in the same formation provides an effective attack running the ball, as well as in FB/RB screens, and especially checkdowns. Tolbert's receiving abilities, along with his ability to run after the catch, provide mismatches for opposing defenses. Arm tackles won't bring him down, and if a DB/LB takes a bad angle on a tackle, Tolbert has the size to brush them off and the agility to outmaneuver them.
The 21 grouping will likely draw a base set from the defense, in order to combat the prowess of the run game, allowing single/soft coverage for either Greg Olsen or Steve Smith.
The 21 grouping provides a lot of versatility, and opposing defenses aren't yet familiar with it's complete capacity, and the tendencies that the Coaching Staff calls plays. With the signing of Tolbert the Panthers have arguably the top back field in the NFL, and personnel groupings like the 21 could allow them to get the most mileage of the talented trio, along with the supremely talented Newton.