The Carolina Panthers offense limped into Minnesota in dire need of a good performance. Things were so bad, people actually called for Cam Newton to be benched and other, more rational people were forced to write about just how dumb it would be to do so.
One of the main sticking points for those defending the 24-year-old was first-year offensive coordinator Mike Shula's use of Newton. Instead of taking advantage of Newton's rare combination of talent, Shula and the rest of the Panthers brass decided it would be a good idea to keep him in the pocket.
Panthers coaches talked a lot in the off-season about taking some of the load off Cam's shoulders. The thinking was, giving Newton less to do would simplify things for him. Four games into the Panthers schedule, the strategy obviously wasn't working.
On Sunday in Minnesota, Shula called his best game this season. It helps that the opponent hasn't held an opponent under 27 points all season, but credit has to go to the embattled play-caller for his game plan.
Along with some designed QB keepers and a pinch of Read Option, Shula took a page out of Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly's playbook. If you watched the Panthers preseason game against the Eagles, you probably remember seeing a lot of this:
The Eagles use this stacked alignment as a part of packaged plays with options to run or pass depending on what the defense shows before the snap.
Against the Vikings, the Panthers used these plays on several occasions to great effect. Let's take a look at how Shula used these looks throughout the game.
The first occurrence came on just the second play of the game. The Panthers are in 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) and the Vikings counter with their nickel package:
Nickelback Josh Robinson (#21) is the key man here. If he stays outside on the stacked alignment, the Vikings have only six men in the box and Newton will hand it off to DeAngelo Williams on a draw play. But Robinson creeps into the box, so Newton hits Steve Smith on a bubble screen:
Later in the drive the Panthers come out in a similar alignment, but with the stacked receivers at the top of the picture. And instead of a running back draw packaged with the bubble screen, Shula opts for a quarterback draw:
Cam's key defender here is cornerback A.J. Jefferson (#24), but he's lines up in ambiguous position -- is he coming into the box or is he going out wide? Instead of making up his mind before the snap, Newton reads Jefferson's movement after it. Jefferson goes wide and Newton picks up six yards on the run:
After the Panthers showed the design a couple more times in the first half, Shula had to know the Vikings coaches would make some adjustments at half-time -- and that's where the chess match begins. In the third quarter, the Panthers line up in the same formation:
The Vikings think they know what's coming and plan for it. They put two men out on the stacked receivers, giving Newton the hand-off look. Minnesota's linebackers are thinking a run is coming for sure. Instead, Newton fakes the hand-off, the Vikings linebackers bite hard and Newton hits Ted Ginn over the vacated middle for a 17-yard gain:
That's great play-calling. Let's see if Shula can keep it up.
Here's a cut-up of all eight of these plays (which are essentially running plays and exclusively called in running situations, i.e. First Down and Second and Short) the Panthers ran Sunday. The numbers: 8 plays for a total of 50 yards, or 6.25 yards-per-play: