First, the Carolina Panthers overhauled their running scheme. Then they tweaked it. Sunday, they strayed from the new philosophy.
In Week 7, the staff went from an option-style, zone-read rushing offense to a more traditional power attack, a style that more favored Jonathan Stewart’s rushing capabilities. They demoted starter DeAngelo Williams.
Before Week 7, with the Panthers running more zone-read, statistics showed Williams had more success on those carries, and Stewart was statistically better on traditional handoffs.
The coaching staff agreed, and when they made the Week 7 change the coaches said they’d like to get Williams on the edges and pound the ball with Stewart.
An Observer review of the Panthers’ game against Tampa Bay on Sunday shows a divergence from that philosophy. Rather than getting Williams on the edges, where his speed can be exploited, most of his carries went between the tackles. Stewart got more calls to the outside than Williams.
• Six of Williams’ seven carries went between the tackles. His one carry to the left side (for minus-1 yard) came when Newton was under center and handed him the ball out of the I-formation. Williams had three rushes out of zone-read, all of which went to the middle and gained 6 yards.
• Twelve of Stewart’s rushes were between the tackles, and he had three rushes go to the outside. He was also used more than Williams out of zone-read. He had four carries for 31 yards, including two carries to the left for 10 yards.
“I think it maybe just happened that way,” offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said of Williams getting fewer touches on the edges. “Tampa’s an outstanding defense and they do a great job against the run, so those yards are tough to come by. They usually are bringing some pressure off the edge or looping the defensive lineman the other way.”
For the third time in four games, the Carolina offense was unable to hit the edges. Denver’s front four wouldn’t allow it in Week 10, and the Julius Peppers-led Bears’ defense shut it down in Week 8.
Tampa Bay’s rush defense is the best in the NFL. The Bucs entered Sunday’s game allowing just 80 rushing yards per game but gave up 97 to the Panthers. A good chunk of those yards came when quarterback Cam Newton scrambled.
The quarterback scramble was the Panthers’ most efficient rush earlier this season, and Sunday was no different as he took off three times for 27 yards. But scrambles usually denote a breakdown in the offense. Be it a knockdown after a throw, a sack or a tackle on a run, Newton was knocked to the ground 15 times Sunday and came up gimpy after one pass in the second quarter. Chudzinski said some of the 15 hits were “unnecessary” for Newton, whom Ron Rivera praised earlier this year for his ability to not take big hits.
But the biggest aberration for the Panthers’ rushing attack Sunday was the disappearance of Mike Tolbert. For the first time since 2009 – his second season in the league – Tolbert went an entire game without a carry.
Though Tolbert caught two screen passes from Newton for 14 yards, free safety Haruki Nakamura, who carried once for minus-4 yards on a fake punt, finished with more carries than Tolbert.
The last time Stewart, Williams and Tolbert combined for 100 yards rushing was Week 3 against Atlanta. A rushing offense that last year was third in the league now sits in the middle of the pack.
“There are a lot of things you go through when you’re calling a game, and part of it is the success you’re having or not having and the success they’re having against you,” Rivera said. “We tried to make an adjustment and they countered that with something different, and we tried to make another adjustment.
“It is a chess match and sometimes you get it right and sometimes you don’t.”