Breaking down the data: Panthers vs. Falcons

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Numbers and pictures from the Panthers victory over Atlanta

More or less the theme of Carolina's last three games, it wasn't pretty, but it got the job done. Against an emotionally charged Atlanta team the Panthers clawed out a 21-20 win.

After finishing the game against New Orleans without a third down conversion, Carolina normalized, picking up seven first downs on15 attempts. On the other hand, the Falcons were able to enjoy similar success against the defense, converting seven of 16 third downs.

Offensively, the Panthers did not have much success running the ball. QB Cam Newton was the game's leading rusher with 12 carries for 72-yards, most of which came from scrambles, and not read-option plays or draws. Carolina was much more successful in the red zone, capitalizing on both of trips inside Atlanta's 20-yard line.

11 personnel was again the dominant grouping, largely in the first half, with 20 of 29 plays coming in the first half. Possibly in part due to Ben Hartsock's injury, 12 personnel saw a reversal of trend. And for the second consecutive week, the Panthers ran scant few plays from 21 personnel, also running more often from what has usually been a passing set.

Personnel Runs Passes Total
11 8 21 29 (52%)
12 3 10 13 (23%)
21 3 2 5 (9%)
22 6 1 7 (13%)
23 1 0 1 (2%)
31 1 0 1 (2%)

Personnel 1st half 2nd half
11 pass 16 5
11 run 4 4
12 pass 3 7
12 run 1 2
21 pass 2 0
21 run 1 2
22 pass 0 1
22 run 3 3
23 run 0 1
31 run 1 0

For the first time in December the Panthers called a play from 31 personnel, a triple option run in which Newton made a poor read, resulting in a one-yard loss.

The read option plays were similarly sheltered, this week totaling just four carries for 17-yards, 15 of which came from a Newton keep on an inverted veer play. The Panthers Offense has really cut back on the read option. In the last quarter of the season Carolina ran just fifteen read option plays; in the previous four games the Panthers ran 28. Perhaps the call to diminish the read option's use was made in an effort to keep Newton healthy for a potential postseason run. Perhaps the Panthers didn't want to give potential opponents much film (teams usually look over an opponent's last four games). Perhaps the coaching staff wanted to wean the offense from the read option game.

Over the same period the offense has been much less stable. And while correlation does not prove causation, I think come January 12th, the offense will see more read option plays, and more of the 'trick plays' we've seen over the season.

The defense is largely a reactionary instrument in football; Atlanta played a lot from spread formations, causing Carolina to respond with nickel defense.

Front 1st half 2nd half Total
4-3 7 8 15
3-4 2 1 3
4-2-5 23 24 47
3-3-5 1 0 1

Front & Coverage 1st half 2nd half Total
4-3 Zone 5 3 8
4-2-5 Man 1 2 3
4-2-5 Zone 17 17 34
3-4 Zone 1 1 2
3-3-5 Zone 1 0 1

Unlike the contest versus New Orleans, Carolina did not test the opponent with man coverage often. Whereas the first half was dominated by nickel zone coverage, the second half was more even keeled until late in the fourth quarter, as the last dozen or so plays had the Panthers in nickel zone coverage.

Cam had an off day against Atlanta. Not just the sailing passes, but he made a few questionable decisions with the ball.

Cs1_medium

This play occurs on a third down and ten. Atlanta, showing zone, is playing man coverage across the board.

Cs2_medium

After Newton completes his drop he has Brandon Lafell wide open on the crossing pattern, and Ted Ginn with inside leverage as he prepares to make the break on his post route. With a well thrown ball, Lafell is a foot race away from the first down; Ginn is a broken tackle or two away from a touchdown.

Cs4_medium

Newton has a relatively clean pocket to step into as well. The Panthers protection scheme does not crack against the Atlanta blitz.

Cs5_medium

Rather than stepping up into the pocket and delivering a strike, Newton flees, evading invisible pressure.

Cs6_medium

The supreme athlete he is, Newton is able to pick up 16-yards and the first down on a highlight-reel scramble. But unlike the New England game, or the Tampa Bay games, where Cam quickly identified there was nothing worthwhile downfield, or was escaping a collapsing pocket, here Newton seems to emulate an early-career Michael Vick.

Of course we want Newton to make these plays when he is capable, but when facing a Connor Barwin or Aldon Smith, commensurate athletes to Newton, these scrambles become much less sustainable.

I think this was just a case of Newton pressing.

Cn1_medium

This bootleg play occurs on first down, just inside Atlanta territory. Lafell will run a deep corner route while TE Greg Olsen runs a shallow drag route.

Cn2_medium

Newton completes the roll out and takes a hitch step, looking back to the left side of the field where Brandon Lafell is making his break. The WR has at least three steps on the CB, and the Safety is nowhere near in position to affect any throw made to Lafell.

Cn3_medium

And yet Newton passes up that attractive option, and instead hits Olsen for an eight-yard gain. It's not the coverage which scares the QB away; a 7-route is perfect against the Cover 2 Atlanta is playing. And I'm fairly positive it's not the progression either; most of Carolina's route concepts have a hi-lo progression, where Newton first looks deep before proceeding to shallow routes.

While Newton has done a very good job this year of knowing when to abandon the deep routes in favor of a shorter more sure target, there have been a few outings where he's teetered on reluctance towards taking shots down the field.

These last two plays, the former, a brash aggressive decision, the latter, an ultra conservative decision, demonstrate that Newton is still well into his development as a quarterback, a decision maker.

Moving on, Carolina had a tough day moving the ball on the ground. It appears that Panthers wanted to run outside on Atlanta, running a concentration of outside zone plays against the Falcons. These plays didn't have much success, and really struggled after Ben Hartsock's injury.

Oz1_medium

The Panthers are running an outside zone pin and pull play. Hartsock's replacement, Richie Brockel will down-block the Defensive End across from him.

Oz2_medium

Brockel expects the DE to move inside at the snap, but Jonathan Massaquoi reads the play and starts outside. Therefore Brockel does not hit the DE squarely, and is unable to achieve good hand positioning.

Oz3_medium

Massaquoi tosses Brockel aside as Mike Tolbert receives the handoff.

Oz4_medium

With Massaquoi in the gap, there is no hole for Tolbert to cut into, forcing him to keep stretching the run outside.

Oz5_medium

Eventually Tolbert is tackled, by Massaquoi, for a one-yard gain.

Without setting the edge, outside tosses and stretches have almost no chance of success. This season Ben Hartsock has done a fantastic job of setting the edge for Carolina; his absence is noteworthy.

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