Under Ron Rivera's direction the Panthers have possessed one of the top rushing attacks in the NFL. In 2011, the team averaged 150.5 yards per game, third in the league, and a league high of 5.4 yards per carry. And despite the drop off in 2012, Carolina still finished with 130.5 YPG (9th in the NFL) and 4.5 YPC (8th in the NFL). With dual threat quarterback Cam Newton, and Pro Bowl caliber RB's DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, not to mention Mike Tolbert, it's inarguable that Carolina doesn't have one of the most talented backfields in the NFL.
This post isn't to spark another Williams vs. Stewart debate, or to argue the merit of an 80+ million dollar backfield, but rather to examine the X's and O's behind the Panthers rushing game. And while indubitably a large part of Carolina's running game, we won't go into the read option plays.
The truth is that the NFL is terribly redundant when you strip it down. From Chris Brown:
As a rule of thumb, 80% of what NFL teams do on offense (or defense, really too) is extremely straightforward to the point where every team runs the same stuff. And the list is not that long. [...] Most notably, the whole NFL's entire run game amounts to about four or five plays. [...] No matter what cosmetic deceptions you see when you watch an NFL game (and remember, these cosmetics are supposed to be good enough to fool the opposing coaches who have studied film all week), you're seeing the same plays over, and over, and over again. There is some admitted monotomy to this.
The most prevalent play in the Panthers running attack would be 'Power', or 'Power O', which was made famous under the Joe Gibbs Redskins teams of the eighties.
The linemen block downwards, sealing off the play side, while one of the guards, in this instance RG Garry Williams, pulls to the play side, opening a hole for the RB to follow.
As is the case, the RB has a lead blocker, here FB Mike Tolbert, who is usually responsible for the kick out block.
Williams pulls and Tolbert advances, as RB DeAngelo Williams takes the handoff, and TE's Olsen and Hartsock secure the edge.
As Williams hits the LOS, Garry Williams has neutralized a LB, and Tolbert a DB. LT Jordan Gross is a little slow to reach the second level, which necessitates Williams to cut back.
Gross keeps the ILB away from Williams, while the Saints LB #50 overcommits, losing Williams on his cutback, the Panthers RB gaining 65 yards on the carry.
However, the Panthers don't run Power from the I formation, or a 22 personnel set every down. In this play versus Atlanta in Week 4, Carolina is operating out of a shotgun formation, 11 personnel.
By virtue of the spread of the shotgun formation, the defense is unable to coalesce in the box as they would against a 22 personnel set I formation (i.e. in the above play versus the Saints).
Additionally, there is also the option to provide a lead blocker on Power runs from the shotgun.
Oftentimes last season we saw TE Greg Olsen assume the mantle of lead blocker, usually lined up in the backfield.
For more variety, the Offense also runs Power from the Wildcat.
Carolina also runs Power with QB Cam Newton.
Silatolu, the pulling guard on this play, seals DT Gerald McCoy.
Tolbert, Newton's lead blocker, levels the Tampa DE, which allows the QB a free path into the secondary where he is tackled after an 11 yard gain.
Power is also the Panthers preferred goal-line play.
Too many fans prescribe to the schema that the I-formation=power football, and that spread formations=finesse football. It's an inaccurate representation. We aren't in the 1980's; we don't need to be lined up in the I formation to run Power. The formation, or set, doesn't matter so much as the match-ups it elicits.
Here is a fantastic video of Gibbs himself teaching over cutups from a coaching clinic.
Outside Zone Cut-Ups terrell davis alex gibbs (via dibiguous)
Also known as zone stretch, regularly, the Panthers run outside zone blocking on zone read plays, but it also sees usage in other situations.
From this 11 personnel set, Carolina aligns in the I formation.
At the snap, all linemen, in sync, take a step to the play side, and locate their marks.
As he takes the handoff, Williams makes his read, with the Charger OLB on the outside of RT Byron Bell, Williams is going to have to run inside of the RT.
After sidestepping Olsen, Williams makes his cut. Wily veteren that he is, ILB Takeo Spikes has read the play well.
Garry Williams is able to shove Spikes out of the runner's path, which enables Williams to make it into the secondary, tackled after a 12 yard gain.
Additionally, Carolina makes use of the 'pin and pull' variation of Outside Zone, in which 'uncovered linemen', OL with no DL overtop, pull to the play side, while others block down to cover the void. Depending on the scheme of the opposing defense, there might be three linemen pulling on a given play.
The 'pin and pull' is very effective once you've established the Outside Zone, and get the opposing front seven sliding outside to cover the edge, providing big cutback lanes for backs as in this example versus Kansas City.
Here RT Byron Bell blocks down on Tyson Jackson while RG Garry Williams pulls to the play side. Expecting a strong reaction to precipitate of the Outside Zone, DeAngelo Williams' read on this play is the outside shoulder of LG Amini Silatolu.
As Newton recedes, RG Williams pulls and Bell blocks down on the Chiefs DL.
Immediately as he takes the handoff, Williams makes his read and recognizes the large cutback lane between Silatolu and LT Jordan Gross.
Not wasting a second, Williams hits the hole and picks up 13 yards, exploiting the gaping hole in the KC front seven.
Draw plays are pretty straight forward: the linemen block to create a hole at the A-gap- between the center and the guards.
Like the other plays, Draw may be run from a variety of formations.
By shifting RB Mike Tolbert out of the backfield, Carolina has caught Atlanta in an unfortunate play-call, as ILB Akeem Dent, who would be covering the A-gap, is now tasked with covering Tolbert in the slot.
At the snap, Dent drops to cover Tolbert, while the OL do a good job of parting the Falcons DL, creating a wide berth for Williams.
With Dent watching Tolbert, and LB Stephen Nicholas wary of a potential read option run, Williams is unmolested as he cruises into the Atlanta secondary, picking up another gain of 13 yards.
When the runner receives a leader blocker, the play becomes a Lead Draw, as in this case Gary Barnidge acts as Williams' lead blocker.
As often as not the Panthers will run Draw from under center in single back or I-strong or I-weak formations. Below, Gary Barnidge again motions into the backfield to act as Williams' lead blocker.
Every now and again Carolina runs Inside Zone, which varies slightly from its Outside Zone counterpart. On an Inside Zone play linemen must identify whether or not they are 'covered' or 'uncovered'; whether or not they have a defensive lineman overtop. If uncovered, linemen will advance into the second level of the defense. Differing from Outside Zone, there is much less lateral movement in blocking Inside Zone, and the runner aims for the outside shoulder of a guard rather than the tackle/tight end.
Operating from this 12 personnel set, RG Jeff Byers and TE Ben Hartsock are uncovered and will move into the second level.
As Williams takes the handoff, there is nothing cooking on the left side of the line, prompting him to stay right.
The RB correctly identifies the hole and accelerates before being tripped up by the OLB and tackled by the ninth man in the box, the Redskins SS.
There will be no return to a power running game, and there probably won't be a simplification of the running game.
For the last two seasons Carolina has employed a power running game, utilizing just a handful of plays out of a variety of formations. Running the ball from the shotgun doesn't change the constitution of the play.
I wouldn't advise many more undercenter runs. Spread formations... well... spread the defense, prohibiting eight and nine man boxes, providing some advantageous match-ups while not compromising the scheme. On the flip side though, undercenter runs do present more succulent opportunities for play-action. There is a balance to be had; there is little to be gained from overloading on undercenter runs or running plays from the shotgun.
It is highly unlikely that the Panthers reclaim the successes of 2011. Only five teams in the history of the NFL have reached or surpassed 5.4 YPC ('12 Vikings, '11 Panthers, '10 Eagles, '06 Falcons, and '97 Lions), with the Lions and Falcons teams hitting 5.5 YPC.
Should Carolina's run game improve in 2013, it will be because of improved play on the offensive line, engendered by increased stability, and improvements from returning players.