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Carolina Panthers All-22 Film Analysis: The 3x1 Formation

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Learn more about the Panthers' most effective offensive formation.

The Carolina Panthers were nearly unstoppable moving the football through the air against the Atlanta Falcons’ defense last Sunday. A huge part of their success was due to the fantastic play designs specifically created to attack the Falcons’ Cover 3 zone defense. One particular formation the Panthers used to attack the Falcons’ zone defense was the 3x1 formation out of 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR).

The 3x1 formation has been one of the Panthers’ most popular passing formations over the past five years because of its versatility. The 3x1 formation floods one side of the field with a trips (three receiver) set, which often forces opposing defenses to over-commit to that side of the formation, leaving the weak-side vulnerable in the run game and passing game.

The Panthers wasted no time going with the 3x1 formation against the Falcons. On their second offensive play, they line up in a very tight 3x1 formation with Greg Olsen as the backside receiver at the end of the line of scrimmage. The Falcons respond with a 4-2-5 nickel defense with three cornerbacks in zone coverage. Olsen runs a slant route and is able to get just enough separation to make the catch against tight coverage, gaining 11 yards on the play.

On the next drive, the Panthers once again come out in a 3x1 formation. However, this time it’s more spread out, with Ted Ginn as the backside "X-Iso" receiver. On the trips side, the Panthers put Greg Olsen and Jerricho Cotchery in the slot, with Philly Brown on the outside.

Notice the defensive alignment. The Falcons are playing Cover 3, which is a single high safety formation. The safety automatically cheats towards the trips side of the field, which leaves Ted Ginn isolated in one-on-one coverage against the cornerback, something Cam Newton immediately notices pre-snap.

Cam wastes no time making up his mind -- he’s going to give Ginn a chance deep down the field. Ginn does a great job pushing through the early contact by the cornerback, and makes the 74-yard touchdown catch.

One of the biggest advantages of the 3x1 formation is the matchup opportunities the far inside slot receiver on the trips side gets. On this play, the Panthers once again come out in a 3x1 formation with Devin Funchess as the backside receiver, and Greg Olsen, Jerrico Cotchery and Philly Brown as the trips receivers.

The Falcons are once again in their Cover 3 nickel zone defense, with cornerbacks matching up against all three of the Panthers wide receivers. However, this means inside slot receiver Greg Olsen is going to have a favorable matchup against either a linebacker or safety in zone coverage. Cam Newton once again quickly notices this, and simply waits for Olsen to find the soft spot in the zone coverage. Olsen runs a simple curl route, and is able to make an easy 17-yard catch.

A couple of plays later, the Panthers once again come out with their 3x1 formation. However, this time they do something very interesting. They line up Greg Olsen as the backside "X-Iso" receiver, and put Ted Ginn as the far inside slot receiver on the trips side.

The Falcons defense is playing zone coverage, so it means Olsen gets the matchup against the cornerback on the backside, while Ginn gets zone coverage from either a linebacker or safety. The Panthers run three verticals from the trips side of the formation, which forces the Falcons’ middle linebacker to defend Ginn deep down the field. It doesn’t get any easier than this. Ginn easily beats the linebacker and makes the 46-yard touchdown catch.

The Carolina Panthers’ receiving corps is not the most impressive in the NFL, but the 3x1 formation puts them in positions to win against zone coverage. It also makes Cam Newton’s job a lot easier, as defenses can’t effectively disguise their coverage when facing it. As a result, Cam’s reads in the passing game are much clearer and defined, and this has made Newton a very deadly passer from this formation. Expect plenty more of the 3x1 formation from the Panthers’ offense moving forward.

All GIF's and images courtesy of NFL.com