Over the last two seasons, the Carolina Panthers' Read Option attack has gashed defenses and kept opposing coaches up at night. In 2013, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott will get their shot at shutting down the latest offensive craze to hit the NFL.
Carolina's first shot at a Read Option team will come early, as Russell Wilson's Seattle Seahawks come to Bank of America Stadium for the season opener. The Panthers travel to San Francisco in November to face off with Colin Kaepernick's 49ers before playing the Dolphins, who experimented with the Read Option late last year and figure to utilize the play more this season, and the Patriots, who might have some Read Option wrinkles teed up with Tim Tebow in tow. Add in a Week 2 clash with the Bills, who might be led by the ultra-athletic first-round selection E.J. Manuel, and the Panthers are looking at a Read Option gauntlet in 2013.
Last season, Carolina got its first and only taste of the college-style attack in Week 9 against Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins. (The Seahawks had not yet installed the Read Option at the time of the Panthers' Week 5 game with Seattle. When it was finally included in the game plan, Seattle's offense took off after a rough start to the season). The Redskins ran the Read Option only six times for a total of 30 yards. The Panthers were able to build a two possession lead by the middle of the third quarter and Washington was forced to abandon its running game. The Redskins ran only one Read Option in the last 23 minutes of the game, and that one was nullified by an offensive penalty.
A five yards-per-carry average isn't something most defensive coaches would get excited about; but given the gaudy statistics the option attack put up in 2012, the Panthers coaches must have considered it a success.
The Panthers didn't seem to have a strategy against the play early in the game. Although the defense was able to hold Alfred Morris to a pair of two-yard runs, those outcomes had more to do with blown blocks by both Washington guards than any tactical defensive scheme.
But as the game progressed, you could see Rivera's game plan materialize: He wanted Griffin to keep the ball and to bring another defender around the edge to replace the unblocked defensive end crashing toward the running back, also known as the "scrape technique." This is the technique used by college defensive coordinators to slow down the Read Option, and, as Chris Brown writes over at Grantland, NFL coaches have trekked to college campuses around the country in search of an antidote against the potent attack, which could be a fruitless journey, as Brown points out:
Pro coaches can spend as much time as they'd like searching for a magic read-option cure-all on college campuses. They aren't going to find one... a quick perusal of any Saturday afternoon games - or a statistics page - shows that the read-option is hardly being stamped out in the college ranks.
As college defenses adapted to the Read Option, the offenses countered with adaptations of their own. And having the benefit of seeing the Read Option's evolution over the last decade, pro coaches running the scheme were able to avoid the trial-and-error period that college coaches went through.
Take the following play, for example, taken from the Panthers' win over the Redskins. Washington is in a full house Pistol formation and Carolina is in a 4-3 front with safety Charles Godfrey in the box.
Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson is going to crash to the running back and linebacker Thomas Davis will "scrape" down and take the quarterback.
The problem for defenses is the Pistol gives the quarterback a third option to pitch. After Johnson engulfs the running back, Davis still has two players to account for: Griffin and the pitch man. This opens up a huge hole for Griffin.
The Panthers get a similar effect in their read option looks with Greg Olsen lining up in the back field and serving as a lead blocker for Newton if he happens to keep the ball. On Cam's unforgettable 72-yard touchdown against Atlanta, Olsen picks up the Falcons safety crashing into the box to account for Newton on the Read Option.
The play also puts pressure on defenses' pass coverage as well. It's no coincidence that four of the top six teams in terms of play-action success are the Panthers, Redskins, Seahawks and 49ers, according to Football Outsiders. In that Week 9 match-up, the Redskins biggest plays came off of play-action out of Read Option looks.
The Panthers defense, which was one of the best against play-action passing according to Football Outsiders, was undisciplined and repeatedly fooled by the play fake against Washington because of their eagerness to stop the Read Option play.
What all of those defensive coaches looking for tips on college campuses will realize is there is no sure fire way of slowing the play down. Just like defending a Peyton Manning-led passing attack or an Adrian Peterson-led rushing game, it takes good players and good coaching to contain the Read Option.
Rivera said he'd put his knowledge of x's and o's up against anyone's; in 2013, he'll get multiple chances to do so.