The run game is embroidered into the very fabric of football. Transportation of the oblong ball through the vessel of millionaire couriers, whose vital mission is measured in distances of yards and inches. A brutish exercise which inspires tomes of technique and instruction, but can be simplified into the action of large men moving other large men against their will.
Relatively speaking, the Panthers have been effective at running the football over the past few seasons. Where 2011 saw Carolina mass yards and first downs, 2013 saw the Panthers pick up wins en route to a division title. The entire NFL run game is based on only a handful of plays. Charting each play, I looked to gain a better understanding of how Carolina tailors its running game. For this activity I excluded all quarterback scrambles and sneaks, as well as reverses.
Here's a quick reminder of each play.
Of course my diagrams are more rough sketches; the pin and pull variant is a little more fluid. Covered linemen block down, while uncovered linemen pull. Usually there is a tight end to the playside, allowing the offensive tackle to get out in space.
Few in number, these plays are run from every formation and alignment imaginable, with enough cosmetic deceptions to keep opponents guessing week in and week out.
(OZ is shorthand for Outside Zone, IZ being Inside Zone)
In essence, the Panthers have two base run plays in power and outside zone, with inside zone operating as a change of pace. For Carolina, the draw was merely a constraint play, meant to keep the opposing front seven in line.
By a small margin the Panthers ran more power than outside zone. However, the run game is a fluid apparatus, varying from game to game, quarter to quarter.
One of the more frustrating 'fanisms' is the 'Coach XYZ sucks. He never makes adjustments at halftime' line. Most teams adapt their game plan in between series, not halves. Look no further than the run game for in-game adjustments. Week 15 for example had the Panthers start out heavy with seven outside zone runs in the first half, gaining nine-yards against the Jets front seven. In the second half Carolina rattled off power 12 times.
Next we'll take a look at how effective each play was.
Of the two base plays, power was more effective, especially considering it was the go-to play in short-yardage situations. Interesting to note the success of draw plays: the Panthers seemingly targeted Atlanta with draws. In two contests versus the Falcons, Carolina ran six draw plays for a total 54-yards (9 YPC). Remove those two games and the total drops to 61-yards and 3.81 YPC.
Using points as a barometer, power dominated, scoring 10 of 13 rushing TD's last season (counting the shovel pass to Tolbert). And while five of the ten came from two-yards and in, other highlights include DeAngelo Williams' 43-yard gallup versus New Orleans, as well as the 27-yard strike in San Francisco. Those would be Carolina's only 20+ yard rushing TD's of the year. For what it's worth, none of the other three plays would have scores from outside the 10 yard line.
Patterns begin to emerge when personnel groupings are taken into account.
The numerical designations come from the number of running backs and tight ends on the field. The first number is the number of RB's, the second, the number of TE's. So 22 personnel is 2 RB's and 2 TE's.
Call it the Ben Hartsock effect, a near majority of outside zone runs came from 12 personnel. Affording the Panthers a strong blocker on the edge, 12 personnel outside zone was OC Mike Shula's favorite run play last season. Likewise, the largest concentration of inside zone plays came from 12 personnel. When the 11-year pro missed three games with injury, the staff tapered off the amount of 12 personnel outside zone, replacing Hartsock with utility H-Back Richie Brockel.
Similarly, a plurality of power runs came from 22 personnel. The effect of Carolina's blowout victories, 22 personnel saw heavy playing time late in games as the Panthers looked to grind out the clock. The proverbial 'chicken-egg' question, is whether the high frequency of power runs comes from Mike Tolbert's presence, or Mike Tolbert's presence comes from the high frequency of power calls. Goal line weapon of choice, 23 personnel also saw a very high percentage of power runs, converting four of its 16 total carries into touchdowns via power plays.
The most popular personnel group in the NFL, 11 personnel was tilted more in favor of power runs. In contrast to the other groupings, I'd estimate that nearly 80% 11 personnel runs were of the read option variant. 11 personnel also holds the distinction of incurring 55% of the Panthers draw plays last season: spread the defense out, show pass, run a draw.
Coming closest to the overall distribution, 21 personnel would see the same amount of carries dedicated to 12 personnel outside zone.
Panthers leading rusher two of the past three seasons, DeAngelo Williams was Carolina's all-purpose back in 2013. Former first round pick, Williams was utilized fairly equitably with each of the four plays. As highlighted, his specialty was outside zone plays. Indeed Williams was the ballcarrier on a wide majority (55%) of outside zone plays, however the Memphis product ran more of everything than his teammates. When his counterpart Jonathan Stewart returned from injury, Williams was given a few more outside zone carries, while Stewart picked up the slack elsewhere.
Whereas Williams and Stewart were asked to be general purpose runners, Mike Tolbert was used as a door opener. Seeing more specialization, a plurality of Tolbert's carries came on power runs. Carolina's go-to running back in goal line and short-yardage situations, it's natural that many of his carries came on power (refer to the above 'chicken-egg' question). In the open field, the trend continues, with Tolbert seeing more power runs. Of course the 2013 Pro Bowler is not simply a specialist, a one-trick pony. For much of the season it was Tolbert who spelled Williams as the feature back, which makes the 'fullback' moniker more of an inside joke.
The wildcard of the equation is quarterback Cam Newton. The marquee running quarterback, Newton's carries are a bit tougher to interpret. Over 1,000 words into this writing and only one mention of the read option plays, which have become a staple of Carolina's offense: the majority of Newton's designed runs come from read option plays. Seeing that the defense decides who keeps the ball, it's more difficult to draw analysis from Newton's carries. With no supporting data, it appears that Newton is more likely to keep the ball on power read option plays than the traditional outside or inside zone reads. Whether that's Newton taking more liberty, or the opposition's inability to force a handoff remains to be seen. If Newton isn't gallivanting on a read option keeper, odds are he's the ballcarrier on a power run. Mike Tolbert may be Carolina's premier power running back, but Newton is option 1B. The two-time Pro Bowler is regularly the recipient of power carries in critical situations.
The quarterback is the face of the NFL today. As such, the frame of the Panthers offseason has unsurprisingly been the purge of the wide receiver corps, Cam Newton's ankle surgery, and the predicted regression on offense --via the passing game.
Naturally the loss of Steve Smith overshadows all else, but the decision not to re-sign Ben Hartsock looks to have the most schematic impact. Hartsock was integral in the scheming of the run game. It's curious that after minicamp and OTA's, we've heard reports that the Panthers have been employing more 12 personnel sets, considering Hartsock's supposed replacements, Dickson and Williams, are nowhere near his caliber blocker. Should the staff roll out the same rushing attack as last season, be prepared for a drop off.
It's worth wondering whether the front office and coaching staff were working in concert on this move. It could be that the GM's office is pushing the coaching staff to open up the offense more. Or maybe it's the coaches who want to attack through the air. A third scenario, the Panthers first free agent signed in 2014, Mike McNeill could play a much larger role than previously assumed. Either way, the running game will be different next year. Not in composition, but aesthetically. Perhaps more 12 personnel, but more spread sets.