Do Your Job

Of course, the NFL is not actually played on a white board – it’s played by real human beings, and human being have flaws, and a few times on Sunday the Panthers were let down by the performance of individual players. Let’s start with Cam.

The first instance where Cam got it wrong didn’t actually hurt the Panthers, as the Lions matched that mistake with one of their own, leading to an eight-yard gain:

 

This is the same triple-option shown earlier, and here Cam should have handed the ball off to Artis-Payne for an easy gain when the defensive end starting to move outside, but because the Lions’ safety hesitated on the play, McCaffrey had space to pick up a chunk of yardage before getting tackled.

Cam’s second mistake, however, did hurt the Panthers:

 

This looks to be a promising nuance to the Panthers’ option attack, with this variation designed to read the edge defender, with the quarterback keeper being a counter play inside right tackle. What goes wrong here is two-fold. First, I have no idea why Trai Turner hesitates on this play rather than continuing through on his pull to block the linebacker, but more importantly, Cam moves to his left while making this read, and this means that when he chooses to keep it, he finds a defender in his way. This might look like a poor block by Van Roten, and it admittedly isn’t great, but the play is meant to go behind him. If Newton stays more central while making his read, this play likely works and is a play worth revisiting, as it could be really effective, but it appears to need a bit more work in practice.

The final play that was undone by player error was the following play in the red zone:

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While Van Roten could have done a better job with his block, the play was really undone by that of Turner. It is unclear whether the guard was waiting on a more forcible block by Kalil or not, but all he really needs to do on this play is to drive his defender outside to create an inside rushing lane and yet fails to do so. This play probably wouldn’t have gone for six regardless, but this is a play that he really needs to make.

Designed To Fail

Of course, teams can’t keep running the same handful of rushing plays over and over again, as defenses will eventually work this out and be able to defend them. Instead, teams have to vary how they run what are effectively the same concepts, and the Panthers tried to introduce a number of wrinkles to their read-option attack against the Lions. Unfortunately these weren’t met with much success.

Some plays, such as the following, weren’t that far off working:

 

This play really isn’t far from working, but somebody needed to block the inside linebacker in order to create an inside running lane. This might have been what Van Roten was meant to do but didn’t – but as executed this play was always going to struggle. Similarly, the Kalil-Turner double team block on the following play is confusing, as it leads to an ineffective block on the defensive end and an unblocked linebacker. If the play was modified so that Turner kicked on to the linebacker with Kalil working to get inside leverage on the defensive end, this would likely have worked much better:

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Obviously, we don’t know how the plays are drawn up and there is always the chance of poor execution, but we’ve only the tape to go on.

 

Similarly here, where it would have made more sense for Turner to work to get inside leverage on the tackle with Kalil kicking onto the linebacker:

 

I would say that this appears to be a miscommunication, only the fact that the Panthers do the same thing on both of the above plays suggests this was how they were drawn up; neither of these plays are very far from being effective, but still definitely need some adjustments before they are ready to be used in a game again.

Then there are the next two plays…

 

Frankly, both of these plays seem to be a massive over-complication of a simple concept.

On the first, it is unclear whether the play is designed to be cut back inside or to go outside – but in either case there are a number of issues. Going to the right of the screen, it is unclear who Olsen is meant to be blocking as Turner is asked to pull far enough that by the time he arrives, the gap has already closed, meaning that Olsen is left blocking his teammate. Similarly, Kalil looks lost as to who he is meant to be blocking, leading to him also blocking his own man. This play is a bit harder to fix than the earlier plays, as there are a lot of things that aren’t working – this is maybe one to put on the back burner, at least for now.

Similarly, on the second play, it is genuinely unclear who the read defender is – because there is no read Cam could have been making that makes sense. If the read defender had been the edge on the backside of the play the this might have made sense, with Clark either pulling across the formation or – possibly more effectively – Van Roten kicking up to take away the backside linebacker; but the only unblocked defender is the backside defender. But Cam doesn’t appear to be looking at him, and it doesn’t make sense for him to have handed the ball off if he was indeed the read defender. Again, this play seemed doomed from the start.

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It was one of those days for the Panthers on Sunday where nothing went their way – and that seems to have extended to their option attack. From a personnel point of view, they made some basic and uncharacteristic errors and from a coaching point of view, they made things more difficult for their players than it needed to be. There is no need to panic about the Panthers’ option attack, as none of the issues are that hard to fix, but from a wider perspective, the fact that the Panthers seem unable to get out of their own way – both literally and figuratively – on the road is troubling.

There should be an easy fix – but should the Panthers fail to make the requisite changes, the appearance of an easy fix that isn’t taken will only make it that much more frustrating.

Only time will tell.

Vincent Richardson on Twitter
Vincent Richardson
Analyst at Riot Report
Astrochemist, bartender and jazz drummer; I also watch a lot of football. Areas of interest include play design, player evaluation and data-driven analytics. Twitter: @vrichardson444