Carolina Panthers

Want to see reason for Carolina Panthers’ offensive success? Stop looking at the ball

After three games, the Carolina Panthers and Norv Turner’s offense are cruising.

Carolina ranks No. 1 in the NFL through three weeks in rushing at 166 yards per game, with the team heading into a Week 4 bye on the heels of a 184-yard rushing performance from running back Christian McCaffrey.

But a lot of Carolina’s success running the ball has stemmed from what happens away from the ball. Little details surrounding the long runs that many don’t catch while watching the game live show that every player, including the receivers, contribute to rushing success.

Week after week, Carolina’s coaching staff watches film late Sunday nights or early Monday mornings, and sees disciplined downfield blocking from tight ends, receivers and offensive linemen.

On a slick, 24-yard catch-and-run touchdown by running back C.J. Anderson in the second quarter, center Ryan Kalil and left tackle Chris Clark sprinted 20-yards downfield to execute two blocks that paved the way for Anderson.

On a 13-yard run by McCaffrey in the first quarter, right tackle Taylor Moton helped clear a cutback lane while receiver Torrey Smith blocked downfield after running his route to help McCaffrey stay clear for a few extra yards.

For McCaffrey’s career-long 45-yard run on the next play, left guard Greg Van Roten opened a gap and rookie tight end Ian Thomas sealed it. McCaffrey darted through and across the field as receiver Devin Funchess jammed up cornerback William Jackson long enough to give McCaffrey a little wiggle room on the left side.

Van Roten also cleared the goal line for quarterback Cam Newton’s first of two rushing touchdowns, a 2-yard bootleg around the left end.

As the Panthers tried to shave time off the clock with a fourth-quarter lead, Newton scrambled for a 12-yard gain that was popped loose by a downfield block on safety Jessie Bates by receiver D.J. Moore.

“When a runner pops a long run, it has something to do with how the second level is blocking,” coach Ron Rivera said this week. “When you get a chance to see the tight ends and the wide receivers blocking downfield, that’s huge. It’s a part of the reason why we had success running the ball.”

Moore, Carolina’s first-round pick this spring, has not been targeted frequently, though his first NFL catch (and second target) was a 51-yard catch-and-run for a score in Week 2. He has two catches on four total targets.

Yet he has played 33.3 percent of offensive snaps to date, contributing at times by clogging up defenders to open lanes for other players.

That’s a huge aspect of veteran receiver Torrey Smith’s job, too.

“Oftentimes, when you see a long run there is a receiver blocking downfield,” Smith said this week. “It’s just an effort thing. It’s obvious when you don’t have it; you get caught looking stupid on camera. It’s not something you want to do.”

Smith, away from the ball

As the team’s “deep threat,” what people expect to see from Smith is long, highlight-reel snags that capitalize on Newton’s arm.

But Carolina has a bigger plan for Smith. Being a deep threat isn’t just about the long ball. Newton has attempted passes over 20 yards just four times in three games.

Smith has played 76.12 percent of the Panthers’ 201 offensive snaps, 95 of which have been passing attempts by Newton. Smith has been targeted on just 15 of those snaps (15.7 percent).

So what has he been doing away from the ball? Coaches call it “taking the top off the defense.”

It means he’s running hard routes, usually mid-to-long range in length, that stretch out a defensive backfield and in turn loosen a front for an assumed pass. They can also jostle defenders or jam them up long enough for others to get open. Defenses must account for him because if he gets behind them into a wide-open field, well ...

“Part of running a hard route is not necessarily if you’re always the intended receiver, but what you mean to the rest of the route,” Rivera said. “If you’re ripping through the defensive formation and guys see that, and they’re jumping you, that’s going to open it up for somebody else.”

An early stretch

That translates to the rushing success, too.

Last week, Turner called a nine-route (“go”, straight downfield) from Newton to Smith as the very first play of the game. It was incomplete, but its ultimate effect was the intended result of the call: The defense stretched backward to keep account of Smith, leaving the front seven a little looser. Carolina was able to run the ball well enough to rack up 110 rushing yards by halftime.

And the success on the ground translates back to opportunity for receivers ... and so on, so forth. At least, that’s what Carolina hopes as they face the long stretch after the bye.

“If teams are going to stuff the box (with an extra defender), and they’re eventually going to have to start doing that with the way we’re running the ball, we’ll get one-on-one matchups (as receivers),” said Smith. “If that’s the case, guys will be running even more wide-open.”

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071; @jourdanrodrigue