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Carolina Panthers: Analysis

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As 2012 season progressed, so did Carolina Panthers, stats show

Offense will continue to rely less on zone-read option plays with new coordinator Mike Shula

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera has said several times this offseason his team’s rushing game in 2013 will look more similar to the second half of the 2012 season than the first half.

The Panthers, Rivera said, will employ less of the zone-read option plays that relied on quarterback Cam Newton reading the defense and deciding what to do with the ball, and more on traditional running styles.

How did the change play out for Carolina last season? An Observer review of every rushing play from the 2012 season showed:

•  The Panthers reduced their zone-read rushing plays by nearly a third from the first half of the season to the second half, but gained more yards running them.

Through eight games in 2012, the Panthers had employed a zone-read rush 72 times for 370 yards (5.14 yards per carry). That accounted for 33.9 percent of their rushing plays and 39.7 percent of their rushing yardage.

In the final eight games, the Panthers used zone read 56 times for 397 yards (7.09 yards per carry). That was 22.4 percent of rushes and 34.3 percent of rushing yardage.

•  Carolina increased the number of traditional handoffs, either from the quarterback under center or out of the shotgun formation, substantially from the first half of the season to the second. The Panthers used them on 84 snaps and gained 260 yards (3.1 yards per carry) in the first eight games. That was 39.6 percent of their rushes and 27.9 percent of yardage.

In the final eight games, Carolina had 130 traditional handoffs for 496 yards (3.81 yards per carry) in the second half of the year, accounting for 52 percent of the rushes and 42.8 percent of the yardage.

•  Zone read and traditional handoffs accounted for 74 percent of all rushes in 2012. The other 26 percent were made up of tosses, scrambles, designed quarterback runs, options, end arounds, wildcat runs, kneels and other miscellaneous rushes.

Designed quarterback runs and scrambles alone make up 16 percent of all rushes.

•  Newton, the top pick in the 2011 draft, took some punishment in 2012. According to ESPN, he was hit or sacked while throwing or rushing 162 times last season, 40 more times than the next closest quarterback, Indianapolis Colts rookie Andrew Luck.

He was also the first quarterback since Donovan McNabb in 2000 (and fourth ever) to lead his team in rushing. He had 741 yards on the ground, 4 more than Williams. (Williams’ numbers suffered when he was demoted five games into the season, then returned to a starting role when Jonathan Stewart missed the final five games with injuries.)

But the Panthers also called fewer designed quarterback runs – bootlegs, draws and keepers – for Newton in the final eight games. After having 20 rushes (9.4 percent of first-half rushing plays) for 89 yards in the first half of the year, Newton had 17 designed rushes (6.8 percent of second-half rushing plays) for 55 yards in the final eight games.

•  Lessening Newton’s rushing load coincided with an improvement in his passing performance. After going through the first eight games with a 77.7 quarterback rating, six touchdowns and eight interceptions, he had 13 touchdowns and five interceptions in the final eight games and improved his final quarterback rating to 86.2.

•  The changes in the running game were a factor in a turnaround in the record, too. Carolina went 2-6 in the first eight games but 5-3 in the final eight.

Whether the changes were the cause of the improved record or a result of playing more often with a lead is open to debate.

For 2013, though, Rivera’s intent is clear. With offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski gone after being named head coach in Cleveland, Mike Shula has assumed his role.

Shula will lead an offense that is more traditional in the running game.

Rivera stopped short of saying the team relied too much on the zone read last year, but he intends to use a rushing philosophy that reduces the pressure on Newton.

“I think we put a lot on Cam’s plate,” Rivera said during June’s minicamp. “If you go back and look at what we did the second half, that’s what I envision.”

That means the zone-read will become more of a wrinkle in the Panthers’ offensive scheme than the staple it was early last year.

“We’ll use it, and we’ll use it very smartly,” Rivera said.

Newton welcomes the change.

“Success for the Carolina Panthers has been getting our running backs involved in the game early and letting those guys do what they do,” Newton said at minicamp. “Everyone knows we have playmakers on the offensive side of the ball, but for us to be successful … we have to run the football.”

Fullback Mike Tolbert looks forward to the opportunity.

“Whenever you got a talented backfield like we got, you kind of want to get back to the basics,” he said. “Run the ball and try to make people stop it.”

Rushing analysis: handoffs vs. zone read

  Time frame   Total rushing   Handoffs % carries handoffs/ % yards   Zone read % carries zone read/ % yards Designed QB runs
1st 8 games 212 carries, 930 yards 84 carries, 260 yards 39.6 / 27.9 72 carries, 370 yards 33.9 / 39.7 20 carries, 89 yards
2nd 8 games 250 carries, 1,158 yards 130 carries, 496 yards 52.0 / 42.8 56 carries, 397 yards 22.4 / 34.3 17 carries, 55 yards
16 games 462 carries, 2,088 yards 214 carries, 756 yards 46.3 / 36.2 128 carries, 767 yards 27.7 / 36.7 37 carries, 144 yards

Definitions

Handoffs: When the quarterback handed the ball off to a running back from under center or out of shotgun.

Zone read: When the quarterback either handed the ball off to a running back out of shotgun or kept it for himself while reading the defense. Blocking schemes help differentiate zone-read plays from handoffs.

Designed quarterback runs: When the quarterback, either from center or out of shotgun, drops back and rushes the ball. Scrambles are not included in this category.

Tosses, end arounds, wildcats, kneels, options, fake punts and other miscellaneous rushing plays were not included in either of the two categories.

Rushing attempts last season

Type Attempts Yards
Handoffs214756
Zone read128767
Toss1436
Designed QB runs37144
Scrambles37289
End arounds975
Wildcat718
Kneels10-12
Miscellaneous615
Total4622,088

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

Complete Carolina Panthers coverage from The Charlotte Observer at CharlotteObserver.com/panthers
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