Under pressure: Mitigating offensive line woes

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Even without personnel addition, can we expect the Offensive Line's play to improve come Week 1?

Only 10 days until kickoff. At the tail end of last season the Panthers Offensive Line was held together by metaphorical duct tape; Thomas Austin, Jeff Byers, and Bruce Campbell were seeing regular time, supplemented by a short lived Jeremy Bridges experiment. And yet, the Offense continued to produce, even paving the way for DeAngelo Williams' franchise single-game rushing record, albeit against one of the worst defenses in history.

As we close in on Week 1, it is apparent that this current rendition of the Carolina Panthers Offensive Line is more talented than its predecessor, despite the alarming lack of depth, at the moment. Of course that doesn't preclude the Front Office from augmenting the unit.

Throughout this preseason the Offense has looked woefully inept, almost entirely due to the substandard play on the line. Much of the blame has been directed towards newly minted Offensive Coordinator, Mike Shula. The fact of the matter is that Shula has not been playing with a full deck of cards, namely the designed quarterback runs, a large part of the Panthers' Offensive successes the past two years.

From what I've been able to discern, the Panthers are still running the route concepts and running plays that Rob Chudzinski instituted. While it remains to be seen how Shula will run the show during the regular season, I believe that the Shula Offense will not be dissimilar to the Chudzinski Offense.

How was the Offense able to mask the inability of its Offensive Line last season? Largely by minimizing Newton's exposure in the pocket via three step drops from the shotgun, as well as a healthy dose of constraint plays.

By my count, over the last four games of the 2012 regular season the Panthers called 148 pass plays, roughly 37 per game. In charting QB Cam Newton's drops, it is evident that there was a a focus on keeping the quarterback's time in the pocket succinct.

Week 14 versus Atlanta

Drops From the shotgun From under center Total
3-step 14 0 14
5-step 2 0 2
7-step 10 6 16
Screens/special 6 0 6

Special plays constitute packaged plays, as well as the odd sprint option, which, in tangent with screens of all varieties, make up constraint plays.

Week 15 versus San Diego:

Drops From the shotgun From under center Total
3-step 12 2 14
5-step 0 1 1
7-step 9 8 17
Screens/special 4 2 6

Week 16 versus Oakland:

Drops From the shotgun From under center Total
3-step 10 0 10
5-step 3 0 3
7-step 9 7 16
Screens/special 5 0 5

Week 17 versus New Orleans:

Drops From the shotgun From under center Total
3-step 9 0 9
5-step 5 3 8
7-step 10 7 17
Screens/special 4 0 4

Weeks 14-17 totals:

Drops From the shotgun From under center Total Percentages
3-step 45 2 47 32%
5-step 10 4 14 10%
7-step 38 28 66 44%
Screens/special 19 2 21 14%

Week in and week out, the percentages stayed fairly similar. Much of the seven-step drops came in two-minute drills, late game situations, or obvious passing downs (i.e. 3rd down & 7+). Whereas five-step drops were rarely utilized, three-step drops from the shotgun were the top subsection, incurring 30% of pass plays alone. Additionally, when added together, 3-step drops and screens/special accounted for 46% of the passing offense.

As Football Outsiders noted, Carolina was a play-action heavy team last year, evident in the large amount of seven-step drops from under center, almost all of which involved play-action.

Rob Chudzinski used an effective blend of screens and play action to slow down opposing pass rushes, while utilizing three-step drops to minimize Newton's time in the pocket. It was during the seven-step drops, especially from under center, that Cam was under the most duress.

Back to the present, thus far in the preseason, Cam Newton has spent a lot of time under center, and taking seven-step drops, which has placed much more stress on the offensive line. At least through my observation, we haven't seen many screens or three-step drops from the shotgun, which has allowed defenses to successfully harass Newton and the passing game, encouraging blitzes.

Come September 8th, Week 1 versus Seattle, I believe we'll see more play from the shotgun, as well as three-step drops, and constraint plays. I don't expect this to massively improve the Offense in and of itself, but it should be helpful enough to enable Carolina to compete for a playoff spot.

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