The sudden turnaround of the Carolina Panthers' offense from dead last in the NFL rankings in 2010 to a rather impressive fifth through 14 games this year obviously has a lot to do with the addition of rookie quarterback Cam Newton.
Whereas the Carolina quarterbacks combined for 2,635 passing yards, nine touchdowns, a 57.0 passer rating and a meaningless 82 rushing yards last year, Newton has already thrown for 3,722 yards, 17 TDs and an 82.3 rating and ran for 609 yards and 13 touchdowns. No NFL quarterback has ever scored that many rushing touchdowns in a season before.
Newton is not the only significant new addition to the Panthers' offense in 2011, however, and we're not talking about that new Hurricane duo at tight end, Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey. When former San Diego Chargers Defensive Coordinator Ron Rivera took over as Carolina's new head coach this offseason, he brought with him the man who had served as San Diego's tight ends coach the previous two years, Rob Chudzinski. Chudzinski was given the reins to the Panthers' offense – a pretty entertaining assignment, given the arrival of Newton – and he has proven (once again) to be a very creative play-caller.
Chudzinski has obviously unlocked much of Newton's potential, helping the former Auburn star succeed much more quickly in the NFL than many analysts predicted he would. Newton's 609 rushing yards obviously include some scrambles, but the Panthers haven't been shy about sending him downfield on designed runs. Newton even has a 27-yard reception this year (more on that later).
That's not the extent of Chudzinski's impact, however. What's particularly striking about the Panthers' attack is how willing it is to throw something completely unorthodox into the mix. In other words, when you play Carolina, you have to watch out for the trick play.
"I said before we played them the last time: Chudzinski, I give him a lot of credit," said Buccaneers Defensive Backs Coach Jimmy Lake. "A lot of credit. He's very creative, week to week. They game-plan, they change up their plays every week. They always have a trick play in their back pocket. They threw one against us. They threw the ball back to Cam Newton. We were out of position – it was actually a bust by us, a good play call by them."
Yes, Newton's catch came against the Buccaneers when the two teams squared off at Raymond James Stadium on December 4. It wasn't some throwaway gimmick in garbage time, either; the Panthers had just a 7-0 lead in the first quarter at the time. Newton took a snap from under center and quickly threw out to his right to wide receiver Legedu Naanee. The trajectory of the throw was instantly suspicious, as it appeared to go backward, technically making it a lateral. Sure enough, Naanee pulled up to throw, but it was still a surprise to see Newton as the target, sprinting out to the left. The pass was completed and only outstanding hustle by Ronde Barber kept it from being a touchdown. Barber got Newton at the two and running back Jonathan Stewart scored four plays later.
As Lake mentioned, the Bucs' defense was complicit in the play's success by getting misaligned before the snap, but the Panthers still get credit for taking advantage of it.
Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris actually recalled Chudzinski calling a very similar play when he was the Cleveland Browns' offensive coordinator in 2007-08.
"They came out and aligned it quick, we got one guy lined up on the wrong side and that's all they needed, one guy on the wrong side, to make a play happen," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris. "We got a great play out of Ronde Barber on that play to make something happen. They ran that a couple years ago with [Chansi] Stuckey out in Cleveland. And then last week you got a chance to see it."
By "last week," Morris is referring to an even more devious bit of play-calling by the Panthers. Near the goal line against the Houston Texans and their outstanding defense, Newton took a short shotgun snap with fourth-string tight end Richie Brockel lined up to his right. The quarterback started to his right and surreptitiously slipped the ball between Brockel's legs into his hands, sort of like a reverse snap, before continuing outside as if he was running an option play. Brockel delayed for a beat and then ran left, around the edge of the Houston defense and into the end zone. To their credit, the Texans recognized the ruse relatively quickly, but it had created just enough time to give Brockel a chance to find the edge.
"You saw one last week against the number-one defense in the National Football League," said Lake. "They ran the Fumblerooski – handed off to the tight end and he ran around untouched for a touchdown. Great play-calling, great execution by the players. I can't give Chudzinski enough credit. He's very creative. It's going to be another coordinator for us to deal with in the NFC South for a long time. We have a lot of respect for [Atlanta's Mike] Mularkey, we have a lot of respect for Sean Payton, and now you have Chudzinski to deal with. It's a tough division."
Again, the Texans reacted relatively well to that trick play, and it's not as if they could have practiced for it in the days leading up to the game. Likewise, the Bucs couldn't have specifically known earlier this month that Naanee would be the one throwing the ball back across the field to Newton. However, according to Morris, a team can prepare for the possibility of trick plays in general, and perhaps knowing the Panthers have a predisposition to the tactic will help the Bucs stay alert.
"It's about reading your keys," said Morris. "When you talk about trick plays you talk about reading your keys. The last time they played us they got us on a trick throwback play. It's a different deal. [Chudzinski] has been very creative. Chudz has done a great job down there like he does everywhere. He's done a great job. He's dynamic. He's what the league needs. It's nice."
When the Buccaneers' offense got the football for the first time in the second half last Saturday night against Dallas, they quickly settled into an up-tempo attack, using three-receiver sets and primarily shotgun snaps. For the first time all evening, the offense put together a sustained march, going 75 yards on 12 plays, capped by Dezmon Briscoe's 13-yard touchdown catch.
Of course, a hurry-up approach was essentially dictated by the game's situation. The Buccaneers were trailing 31-7 and were facing a clock that had just ticked under the seven-minute mark in the third quarter. Their one touchdown had come on defense earlier in the quarter, which was a welcome development but also meant the Cowboys had the ball for most of the period. Best-case scenario, the Bucs had to score three times and get the two-point conversion each time to tie the game in regulation.
Tampa Bay had the ball five times in the first half, and on three of those possessions they gave it to running back LeGarrette Blount on the first two plays. This was no accident – the Bucs are still determined to build an offense that starts with a power rushing attack, and it should be noted that Blount's running led to a short third downs on three first-half occasions. A failure to convert those short third downs is one reason the Bucs fell into such a large early hole.
Still, even if it was borne out of necessity, it can't be ignored that the Bucs' attack was successful with that up-tempo approach in the third quarter. Freeman says that it's possible the Buccaneers will turn to that approach a little more often during the final two games of the season. This Saturday in Charlotte, they may need to score quickly in order to keep up with the NFL's 10th-ranked scoring attack, if the game unfolds in that manner.
"I could see that happening, trying to really get something going early," said Freeman. "We're playing a good team this weekend in the Panthers and their offense has been playing extremely well. It's going to be a game where we're going to have score some points."
That's not to say the Buccaneers will be looking to minimize Blount's role, or that Freeman would advocate such a thing. The point is, if the coaching staff chooses to put Freeman and company into a hurry-up attack, the players will be ready and willing.
"We've had success in that and I think it's because we all have a lot of confidence going into the situation," said Freeman. "When we get into a three-wide receiver set we can go out there and spread it around, distribute the ball to different guys and really get the ball in our playmakers' hands. I think our receivers feel really confident when we get in those passing situations and I also feel really confident."
Stroughter Returns but Defense Still Banged Up
Defensive tackle Jovan Haye, who returned to the Buccaneers on Monday, wasn't sure how much playing time he would receive during the season's final two games. There's no doubt about this, however: He's going to be busy on the practice field.
The Buccaneers started the week without three of their defensive linemen on the practice field: starting defensive tackles Brian Price and Albert Haynesworth and versatile sub Michael Bennett. Both Price (ankle) and Bennett (toe) are trying to work their way through lingering injuries that have limited them to some extent in recent weeks; Bennett was able to stay in the game longer than Price last weekend against the Cowboys. Haynesworth is generally given a lighter midweek practice load in order to help him deal with his own knee injury and stay active on game days.
The Bucs' defense was also without starting weakside linebacker Geno Hayes on Wednesday. Hayes, who has played in all 14 games this season and started 11, is dealing with a knee issue that kept him off the field for one of the rare instances this season.
The offense, on the other hand, could see the return of third-year wide receiver Sammie Stroughter, who is both a useful target in the slot and a real weapon on special teams. Though he missed roughly half of the season with a foot injury, Stroughter leads the Bucs with 460 kickoff return yards and a robust average of 28.8 yards per runback. He'll have to show Morris that he's running at full speed, however, in order to get back on the field. WR Arrelious "Rejus" Benn could potentially return for Saturday's game, too, after missing last week's contest due to a concussion. Both receivers were at full participation in practice on Wednesday.
"We've got a chance to see Rejus this week," said Morris. "Sammie's out there practicing, so I've got to let him go out there and go through the battery of deals as a receiver. It's hard to hide the limp from the old ball coach. He goes out there and practices hard and does a great job and I admire his toughness every single day."