On Tuesday, we examined how the Carolina Panthers held the San Francisco 49ers to their worst offensive performance since Jim Harbaugh became the team's head coach in 2011. Today, let's go to the other side of the ball and look at how the Panthers attempted to attack the 49ers' defense.
As the 10-9 final score would indicate, it was an ugly day for both offenses. It wasn't quite the disaster that it was for San Francisco's offense, but the negative-25.2 percent offensive DVOA was Carolina's second worst showing of the season. Cam Newton had a rough day, especially in the first half, but ultimately wound up making just enough plays to put together the two scoring drives necessary to provide the slim margin of victory.
Where the Panthers were uncharacteristically bad was with their fourth ranked rushing offense. Carolina's negative-24.5 percent run offense DVOA was their worst effort on the ground this season by a significant margin. You have to go back a full calendar year to Week 10 of the 2012 season to find a game in which the Panthers' run game struggled as badly as it did against the 49ers.
With Cam Newton and the Panthers' passing game remaining inconsistent, slowing down Carolina's run game is going to be key. Carolina will run a handful of different rushing plays, but their favorite is the inside zone. They'll run it from a variety of formations and with several different variations to dress it up a bit. Let's go to the All-22 and look at a few of the variants that the Panthers used against the 49ers in Week 10.
The blocking of the inside zone is incredibly similar to its more well known "outside zone" brethren. From a pure assignment standpoint, nothing really changes between the two plays. The primary differences come from the technique used and the aiming point of the running back. I'm not going to spend a ton of time on it here, but if you're interested Chris Brown has a great explanation of the basic differences between the two plays that you can check out.
Where the outside zone typically features more lateral movement from the offensive line, the inside zone is more straight ahead. The zoning aspect of the play comes in primarily with regards to offensive lineman who are "uncovered," giving them rules on who to block. On the inside zone, teams are typically looking to get as many double teams as possible before one of those blockers will move up to the second level to block a linebacker.
Again, the Panthers will run the inside zone from a variety of formations, both Shotgun and from under center. But their Shotgun run game is really where many of the wrinkles come in to play, so let's start there.
Carolina lines up in a basic Shotgun formation but with an unbalanced line; right tackle Byron Bell (77) has shifted over to the left of the offensive line. San Francisco, in their base 3-4, shifts their defensive line in the same direction. With the front the 49ers are in, the Panthers are going to get two double teams: one with center Ryan Kalil (67) and left guard Travelle Wharton (70) and another with right guard Nate Chandler (78) and tight end Ben Hartsock (84).
After the snap, Chandler and Tony Jerod-Eddie get moving laterally to the point that Hartsock moves up to block NaVorro Bowman without providing much assistance on the double team. Once he does, Jerod-Eddie tosses Chandler aside with a fantastic swim move, but isn't quite nimble enough to make the play before DeAngelo Williams is able to cut back and pick up a seven yard gain.
This is the basis of Carolina's zone running game. The majority of the wrinkles you'll see play off of this blocking scheme.
The first variation the Panthers will use of the inside zone is the slice block. The slice block sends one blocker – either a fullback or tight end – across the formation to cut off the backside defender, "slicing" the defense in half. The potential for a cut back is always there with the zone running game, but the slice is designed to do so.
The Panthers again line up in a Shotgun formation with an unbalanced line – this time with left tackle Jordan Gross flipping sides. On this play, rather than aligning in the slot, Greg Olsen motions into the backfield. Carolina's offensive line is going to execute the same inside zone blocking scheme to the right but with Olsen cutting across the formation on the slice block to kick-out Dan Skuta. If executed correctly, Jonathan Stewart will have a rushing lane between Olsen's slice block and Hartsock's block on Justin Smith.
As you would presume, Hartsock doesn't get any movement on Smith which forces Stewart to bounce the run outside. Skuta, who initially widens because of his quarterback responsibility had Carolina called some type of option play, takes on Olsen's block beautifully once he realizes Newton is not keeping the ball. Skuta sheds Olsen's block and makes the tackle for no gain.
Of course, with the multi-faceted Cam Newton at quarterback, the Panthers will run a fair amount of zone read as well. For the offensive line, nothing changes. What does change is how Carolina handles the back side edge defender. With as much as it's been discussed over the past year, most of us are familiar with the basics of the zone read.
Rather than blocking that back side edge defender as we saw on the slice play, Newton is going to "read" this player. If he crashes towards the running back, Newton will pull the ball and take off around the edge. If that defender stays home, Newton will simply hand the ball off and the play will operate as a normal inside zone running play. Here, the Panthers' offensive line is going to execute their inside zone blocking to the left with Newton reading Ahmad Brooks on the right end of the line of scrimmage.
Newton actually makes a poor decision on the read. Brooks sits on the outside waiting for Newton, which should have led to a give to Mike Tolbert. Instead, Newton keeps it and because he's such a phenomenal athlete, he's able to get around Brooks to the edge and turn what should have been a five yard loss into a short gain.
The last wrinkle that I want to highlight builds upon what we saw in the previous play with the zone read. Occasionally, the Panthers will give Newton a third option on the play.
The Panthers will get a third player involved in one of two ways: 1) by aligning in the Pistol, getting another back directly behind Newton as you see in the image below or 2) by motioning a player behind Newton just before the snap. Either way, the result is the same. Newton will perform the same read as he did above, but if he chooses to keep the ball he will have the option of pitching the ball to the second back on the outside. The pitch back is going to keep about five yards of separation between him and Newton while also staying about a yard behind him to avoid an illegal forward pass if they happen to cross the line of scrimmage prior to pitching the ball.
This changes the math for the defense, giving them one additional player to account for. Defending option football is about playing disciplined, assignment-based defense. With the zone read, there is a defender responsible for the back and a defender responsible for the quarterback. By adding in a third "pitch back," the defense must account for him. On this play, DeAngelo Williams aligns behind Newton in the Pistol as the pitch back. Mike Tolbert aligns directly next to Newton as he would in a traditional Shotgun set and is the give back.
Once again, Ahmad Brooks is the player being read. Brooks – along with corner Carlos Rogers who is responsible for the pitch back on this play – stays home and Newton correctly hands off to Tolbert. Brooks does a good job reacting after the handoff and attacking the ball carrier while Ray McDonald successfully takes on the double team and the two defenders make the tackle for a short gain.
There are other wrinkles to their Shotgun run game that Carolina has in their bag of tricks, but these are the ones that show off most often. The 49ers did a fantastic job defending these runs in the first matchup. The Panthers ran for 109 yards total, averaging 3.5 yards per carry. However, 27 of those yards came on a single run – the DeAngelo Williams touchdown at the end of the first half. That was Carolina's only run of double digits all game. On their other 30 carries, the Panthers averaged just 2.73 yards per carry. If the 49ers front seven can muster up a repeat performance on Sunday, it will go a long way towards forcing the Panthers to convert long third downs and keeping them from consistently sustaining drives.