Breaking down the data: 2013 season

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

11 personnel passing, nickel zone coverage, champagne, and caviar

Preseason it didn't seem likely. Even with all of the pieces in place days before the season opener, no one could envision the sojourn of the 2013 season. The 1-3 start, the eight game winning streak, the division crown, and a berth in the divisional round of the playoffs; it was a special season.

Over the course of the season it felt like there was a definite difference between the 2013 Panthers and the 2012 Panthers, schematically or otherwise. But as I tabulated these tables, it appeared that there wasn't all that much strategic difference between the 7-9 season of 2012 and the successful campaign of 2013. There was an intangible change though; not just Coach Rivera's epiphany; Carolina figured out how to win games, how to close out games.

Offensively 11 personnel, still by far the dominant personnel grouping, regressed towards its 2011 use, dropping 8% in usage from last season, not an insignificant figure, as it rounds out to 80 plays or so. Although one would guess that, because of the Panthers midseason win streak, playing with a lead as often in the second half of games, they didn't need 11 personnel as often. This would also correlate in the doubling of 22 personnel's use, and the impetus to 12 personnel as well. Note: bold percentages represent this year's numbers, the lighter percentages, 2012's

Personnel Pass Run Total
11 326 (74%; 68%) 114 (26%; 32%) 440 (46%; 54%)
12 100 (46%; 51%) 118 (54%; 49%) 218 (23%; 20%)
21 82 (49%; 50%) 87 (51%; 50% 169 (18%; 13%)
22 11 (15%; 25%) 64 (85%; 75%) 75 (8%; 4%)
23 2 (11%; 8%) 16 (89%; 92%) 18 (2%; 1%)
13 2 (15%; 9%) 11 (85%; 91%) 13 (1%; 1%)
31 3 (30%; 44%) 7 (70%; 56%) 10 (1%; 1%)
01 7 0 7 (2 last season)
14 1 2 3 (3 last season)
02 2 0 2
30 1 0 1

Last offseason I postulated that we would see more of the offense run from 31 personnel, which totaled 9 plays for an astronomical 120 yards (13 yards per snap). There was a bump to 31 personnel --by one play. Defenses wizened to the inverted bone formation, the diamond formation, or what have you, and rather than dropping that eighth defender into the box, opening up single coverage for one of the Panthers premier targets, kept the safety back, which resulted in fewer pass attempts, and less explosion.

The read option. Was it used less than last year? Sure.

But after Week 13 the Panthers were averaging over seven called read option plays per game, which is on track with 2012, actually even one eighth of play more per game. Then came the reduction the final four games of the season, which saw totals of 4, 3, 3, and 5 read option plays respectively, dropping the average down to six read option plays per game. Even still, that's just one less play. There was no grand reduction in the read option game. In fact, with all the creative wrinkles and variants added in, I'd say there was an expansion in the read option. In all there were 103 read option plays called for 462 yards (4.5 YPC). Not shabby, but a far cry from the seven-yards per pop last year. Though that is in line with the league, a problem not unique to Carolina.

Did the offense become more conservative under Mike Shula? Maybe nominally. Compared to Rob Chudzinski's 2012, there wasn't much difference in strategy. Runs from power situations, ranked #1, running when behind in the second half, ranked #4, passing when ahead in the second half, ranked #25, and offensive pace, ranked #21. That's 2012. 7-9 2012. Running in obvious run situations, running when losing in the third and fourth quarters, eating up clock. That's been the Panthers MO for the past couple years. Perhaps perception was fooled by aesthetics. In 2012 Carolina ran 68% of plays from the shotgun/pistol, good enough for second in the league. 2013 saw a greater emphasis on plays from under center. (Numbers via Football Outsiders)

Looking at drive stats, there isn't a ton of difference between the Panthers offense in '12 and '13, with the 2012 Panthers edging out the most recent rendition in most categories including yards and turnovers per drive. The most dramatic differences came in the average line of scrimmage, 28th in the NFL in 2012, up to 6th in 2013 (easily explainable by the improvement in defense and special teams), plays per drive 13th in 2012, 3rd in 2013, and probably the most telling, Football Outsiders' Drive Success Rate, measuring the percentage of drives gaining a first down or ending ina TD; 10th in 2012, 5th in 2013. Could the only distinct differences in the offense from 2012 to 2013 be an improved Cam Newton, and a more, albeit, relatively, improved (at least the left side; how many qualifiers can I fit in a sentence?) offensive line?

Transitioning to the defense:

Defensive Front Total plays Percentage
4-3 291 31% (42%)
4-2-5 584 63% (49%)
3-4 38 4% (4%)
3-3-5 14 2% (3%)
2-4-5 1 ---

(Percentages in parentheses represent 2012 totals) There isn't nearly as much strategy going into the choice of defensive personnel than there is on the offensive side of the ball. The defense sees which offense is on the field and responds. And as the NFL moves more and more towards spread formations and personnel groupings, defenses are forced to substitute linebackers for defensive backs. For Carolina though, this isn't quite the vulnerability it is for other teams, specifically in run defense.

Front & Coverage Man Zone Total
4-3 36 (24%) 117 (76%) 153
4-2-5 103 (22%) 363 (78%) 469
3-4 5 (23%) 17 (77%) 22
3-3-5 7 (54%) 6 (46%) 13
4-2-5 0 1 1

While on the whole Carolina was heavy on zone coverage this year, they picked their spots to play man, and dabbled in mixed coverages.

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