Every team in the NFL does some things better than others. Some teams are particularly good at one thing, maybe even the best in the league. Think the New England Patriots and their play-action seam pass to the tight end. Or the Pittsburgh Steelers with the counter run. Or the Carolina Panthers' goal-line QB keeper.
None of these signature strengths are a secret. Opponents prepare for them in the film room and on the practice field, and yet these teams continue to succeed with the same concepts. That is, of course, often due to the presence of some especially skilled players, like Rob Gronkowski in New England, Le'Veon Bell in Pittsburgh and Cam Newton in Carolina. Still, these well-known plays generally require precise execution by many of the 11 players on the field. And when they work, they are often a thing of beauty, at least to football fans.
Each game week during Tampa Bay's 2018 regular season, we are going to look at a "Signature Play" that the Buccaneers upcoming opponent utilizes often and particularly well. With the help of images of a sample play at various points during its execution, we're going to try to understand why this play commonly works so well. This week, the opponent is the Carolina Panthers, whose dual-threat quarterback, Cam Newton, can sting defenses on the ground in a variety of ways, including one bit of trickery that worked just last week.
CAROLINA PANTHERS' SIGNATURE PLAY: CAM NEWTON'S NAKED BOOTLEG
Carolina's running game ranks sixth in the NFL as the 2018 season hits the midway point, and that's nothing new for the Panthers. Carolina has finished no lower than 11th in that category for eight years running (assuming they stay in the top 11 this year), and overall they have the second-most rushing yards in the league in that span.
However, this is not the classic power running game the Panthers boasted for so many years with the likes of Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. Second-year RB Christian McCaffrey is not sharing the backfield load; he's been on the field for an incredible 97% of Carolina's offensive snaps this year. McCaffrey has only missed one snap in the last three games combined. Not a classic between-the-tackles runner, McCaffrey is used in a wide variety of ways by the Panthers and is also the team's leading pass-catcher.
There is one rather strong connective tissue between the Stewart/Williams days and the current Panthers offense, and it is obviously quarterback Cam Newton, the very definition of "dual threat." Newton has rushed for 4,629 yards and 58 touchdowns in his career, the latter an all-time NFL record for quarterbacks. He is currently second to McCaffrey on the team with 309 rushing yards, has a robust average of 5.0 yards per carry and is the team leader with four touchdowns on the ground.
Newton gets these rushing yards in just about every way a quarterback can. He's an incredibly dangerous threat when he breaks the pocket and heads out on a scramble. The Panthers use him on designed QB power runs and QB sweeps. He can stress defenses with the read-option. And the Buccaneers have personally witnessed Newton on multiple occasions simply fly over the top of the pile at the goal line.
There is one more, slightly trickier way the Panthers have used Newton's legs this season, and it has been successful every time so far: The naked bootleg. By successful we mean that each of his runs on those plays has resulted in either a touchdown or a first down.
In fact, he scored in that manner just last week in the Panthers' 36-21 win over the Baltimore Ravens. In this case, Newton's touchdown was the icing on the cake of a dominant Carolina performance against a good opponent. Here's the situation:
The Panthers are leading by 13 in the fourth quarter and have chewed the first five minutes of the final period off the clock with a lengthy drive that began at their own 15. After reaching a first down at the Baltimore 19, the Panthers gave Newton the ball for a power run to the left, which was good for seven yards. On second-and-three, they lined up in what looked like a power-run formation, with the fullback offset to the left in a "Far I."
The Panthers are in "22" personnel, which means they have two tight ends, two running backs and one wide receiver on the field. Tight ends Greg Olsen (#88) and Chris Manhertz (#82) are both flanking the right tackle, making that the strong side of the formation. Wide receiver D.J. Moore (#12) is on the other end of the formation, lined up right next to the left tackle. The fullback, Alex Armah (#40) is behind them and McCaffrey (#22) is directly behind the quarterback.
Newton (#1) is under center rather than in the shotgun, and that makes what is about to happen tougher for the Ravens to defend because they have to sell out for the anticipated power run up the middle. If Newton was in the shotgun, the Ravens would surely believe that a quarterback run was high on the list of options.
The Ravens have remained in base personnel on defense, probably because the Panthers are in that aforementioned "22" personnel rather than "23," a three-TE alignment (often with an extra offensive lineman as the third tight end) that essentially promises a power run. The Panthers do run similar-looking plays out of "23" personnel in short-yardage situation, and in such an instance the Ravens would probably replace one of their cornerbacks with an extra down lineman.
Newton takes the snap and turns to apparently hand off to McCaffrey on a "counter" run to the right. That means that McCaffrey takes one quick step to his left before cutting back to his right. All of the Panthers blockers are selling this by "blocking down." They're not trying to move their opponents to the right or left; they're simply trying to stop them from getting a push back in their direction. The tight ends take on linemen Brandon Williams and Chris Wormley and the center, Ryan Kalil (#67) is responsible for defensive tackle Michael Pierce.
The Panthers further sell this as a McCaffrey run to the strong side by having left guard Greg Van Roten (#73) pull to that side and Armah crash down in that direction, as well. On the other end of the line, Moore has a tough matchup with pass-rushing linebacker Terrell Suggs (#55), but the receiver only needs to keep Suggs occupied long enough to give Newton the edge. It helps that Suggs reads the movement of the fullback and believes the power run, which leads him to try to rush between Moore and left tackle Chris Clark (#74).
All of this power-run motion has succeeded in tying up seven of the Ravens 11 defenders in a big scrum in the middle of the field. They have been eliminated from any possibility of getting to where the play is really going. What also helped with this misdirection is that Newton pulls off an extremely good play-action fake, which is one of his many talents.
The other four defenders on the field are cornerbacks Brandon Carr (#24) and Jimmy Smith (#22) and safeties Tony Jefferson (#23) and Eric Weddle (#32). Jefferson is playing in the middle of the field, the one defender "deep" on the play. Carr is on the left side of the defensive formation, the offense's right, and he has stayed there in case McCaffrey tries to cut his run outside of the pile of bodies in the middle of the field. That leaves Smith and Weddle as the last two possible lines of defense against what is about to happen.
And here you see that Weddle and Smith have been taken out of the picture as well. Both defenders bought the play fake and McCaffrey's first step to the left and took several quick steps to their left. Both see the misdirection when Newton keeps the ball and spins out to his left, but as you can tell in this shot, their initial move in was enough to give Newton a clear path to the end zone around the edge.
In addition to adding to the mass of bodies on the strong side of the formation, the fact that Roten went in that direction as a pulling guard caused linebackers C.J. Mosley (#57) and Patrick Onwuasor (#48) to go in that direction, too. Had they not reacted in that direction, they might have also had a shot to seal off the edge. Jefferson reads the play and heads in the right direction but he's too far away and Newton is too fast.
Suggs made an impressively quick reaction and got the closest to Newton but not nearly close enough to prevent the touchdown. Newton finishes off the 12-yard run untouched and the Panthers essentially seal the game (despite failing on the two-point conversion), going up by three scores with 10 minutes to play.
Carolina added a field goal on its next drive and Newton's previous touchdown helped with that drive, too, as you can see below.
The Panthers used the same play design two more times, but in both cases Newton handed the ball off and faked the bootleg out to the left. As you can see here, Weddle and especially Smith remember the touchdown play well and are ow reacting differently to the play, which is to the Panthers' advantage. The linebackers are also less quick to rush into the scrum and Suggs, in the exact same spot as before, now has his head turned towards Newton.
Cam Newton is one of the most dangerous runners in the NFL, at any position, and the Panthers take full advantage of that weapon in a variety of ways. They may or may not pull out the tricky naked bootleg on Sunday with the Buccaneers in town, but Tampa Bay's defenders would be wise to consider it a possibility.