Year one of the Cam Newton/Ron Rivera epoch saw the Panthers carried by strong offensive play, and held back by a horrid defense. 2012, the Panthers were at times characterized by middling, mediocre offense, backed by a stout defense. Almost halfway through the 2013 season, Carolina is playing very solid team football. Since the Arizona game, the offense has averaged 32 points per game, while the defense is second in the NFL in points allowed per game at 13.7.
As it stands, Carolina has the second ranked rush defense in the league, in terms of yards per game allowed (79.3 YPG). Not coincidentally, the last three weeks, against Minnesota, St. Louis, and Tampa Bay, the Panthers have faced a combined total of 10 rushes in the second halves of those games; 10 running plays over 6 quarters of football. The success of the run defense, as well as the defense as a whole, is aided by the strong play of Newton and the offense, who have forced opponents to air it out in the second half, abandoning their rushing attacks. Likewise, the defense not allowing a first half touchdown all season, puts a huge amount of pressure on opposing defenses to stop the Panthers offense.
Offensively, Carolina eschewed balanced personnel groupings versus the Buccaneers, spending the lion's share of their time in 11 personnel.
The run-pass ratio was similarly unbalanced; Coach Shula called 20 runs to 39 passes. Not unlike the Cardinals game, Cam Newton was under siege from consistent blitzing, and the Panthers relied on Newton to beat the blitzes.
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Shula called just four read option plays accruing 23 yards, one of which was a two yard loss. The Panthers are diversifying their read option plays: one inverted veer, two triple options, and an outside zone read. For the first time all year, an opponent brought down a safety into the box when the Panthers lined up in the pistol formation, devoting a man to cover the pitch man, while the read player takes the dive man, and the backside OLB the QB. The Bucs pulled it off successfully, stopping Newton for a two yard loss after taking away RB DeAngelo Williams, his pitch man, and crashing the dive. Although, Carolina did pick up a 10-yard gain on the one play called from 31 personnel, also a triple option. Should other teams follow Tampa's lead, the Panthers will be presented with much more attractive opportunities in play action from pistol sets.
One difference we have seen from Shula and former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski; Shula is more conservative on very long third downs (i.e. 3rd & 12), often calling low risk screens to WR's and RB's. By and large, these plays have been very well executed, save for the part of RG Chris Scott and RT Byron Bell completely whiffing on blocks in space, they'd likely pick up first downs.
Tampa's team is suited to lighter personnel, and when they fell behind, they weren't shy about leaning on the spread passing game.
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The Panthers continued to run coverages in which they leave one of their CBs isolated in man coverage, on a proverbial island with one of the Bucs WRs. Again, I'm not exactly sure what it accomplishes. Carolina again used a relatively effective rotation of pass rushers, with Mario Addison, Wes Horton, and Frank Alexander all playing roughly 30% of the Panthers defensive snaps.
You don't need me to tell you, Cam Newton has undergone a metamorphosis over the past few weeks. In the last three weeks Newton leads the NFL in passer rating. The defensive game plan against the Panthers hasn't changed very much at all, with teams blitzing heavily, and dropping into a two, or three deep coverage. A turnaround from the beginning of his career, Newton has ostentatiously improved in his decisiveness when faced with the blitz.
This play occurs in the first quarter. Tampa plays Cover 3 to the left half of the field, leaving Darrelle Revis in man on WR Steve Smith on the right side of the field. Tampa is bringing pressure, six rushers, including the high safety on the right half of the field.
The Bucs coverage neutralizes the Panthers route combination; there's nothing worthwhile to be had here.
Newton promptly reads the DB's, recognizes that there's nothing there, and breaks the pocket before the blitz can pressure him.
With the deep coverage, there isn't anyone underneath to tackle Newton, who picks up 16-yards on the scramble.
Cam's new found urgency in decisiveness is integral in defeating blitzes, but it also leaves some bigger plays on the table.
Here Tampa is going to run Cover 3, which should leave a nice hole for Greg Olsen's flag route. The Buccaneers don't blitz here, but DE Adrian Clayborn does run a stunt, swinging back inside.
As Newton completes his drop, Clayborn comes unblocked through the line of scrimmage. Olsen is about to make the break on his route, finding the open spot in Tampa's zone. Clayborn is still 4-5 yards from Newton, or about a second or two from disrupting a potential throwing lane.
Newton still has time to make a good throw to Olsen, or one of his checkdown targets. Instead, he commits a cardinal sin, taking his eyes off the play, and watching Clayborn.
This prompts Newton to flee the pocket, scrambling for just a one-yard gain.
If he hangs in the pocket for another second, Newton could have easily made the big play to Olsen. Cam would actually miss Olsen a couple of times on flag routes, which consistently defeated Tampa's coverages. I suspect the coaching staff was aware of this, and talked to Newton on the sidelines, as in the third quarter the Panthers ran a similar play, and the quarterback made Olsen his target, finding him for a 16-yard gain, crossing Carolina into Buccaneers territory, on their way to another touchdown.
Newton's decisiveness isn't a bad thing per se. Just a few short weeks ago we were pleading with him to make quicker decisions. He just needs to know when to sit in the pocket that extra second, and when to bolt, or to move on to a checkdown.