Early in the season, it’s always hard for teams to judge themselves – limited sample sizes make it hard to discern the trends from the anomalies. However, with six games now in the books, it seems pretty clear that the Panthers’ red zone offense isn’t good.

In fact, the Panthers’ red zone conversion percentage of 47.8% is good for 28th in the NFL, with no team with as many red zone trips as the Panthers converting on such a small fraction. Given this frustratingly cold start to the season, what is it that the Panthers are doing wrong – and what can they do to improve in this regard before it paralyzes their ability to put points on the board?

No CMC, No… Outside Runs?

It is worth noting that the Panthers’ red zone offense didn’t start the season cold, scoring a touchdown on four of their first five trips, with the one field goal they kicked coming before the half against the Raiders where they ran out of time rather than downs.

Unfortunately, after a touchdown run to end that fifth drive, the Panthers lost Christian McCaffrey to an injury – and since then, they’ve managed to go a worrying 7-of-18 in the red zone, a rate that would rank them above just the two terrible New York teams for the season. Yes, we all know that Christian McCaffrey is very good (if you didn’t, here’s a primer: Christian McCaffrey is very good), but what exactly about what he offers the Panthers has made his absence so significant?

While it’s hard to tie this to just one thing, a common theme in what the Panthers were able to do with McCaffrey that they haven’t managed in his absence is the outside run game. 

This is especially important in the red zone, as with the field compacted vertically, the offense needs to be able to stretch the defense laterally. In his 13 carries in the red zone, McCaffrey managed to at least keep pace with the chains on 11, a remarkable rate anywhere on the pitch – a major part of this was the way he was able to use his quickness to get outside the base of the defense, allowing him to run at defensive backs or linebackers running at an angle:

 

Not only do these runs allow McCaffrey to get ahead of the chains, but by getting chunk runs of seven or nine yards so close to the goal line, these then put the Panthers in a position to keep pace with the chains with short carries down the middle. These carries are made easier by the fact that with McCaffrey in the backfield, the defense can’t be as compact as they have to respect his speed in getting to the outside. Overall, McCaffrey had five carries of five yards or more, whereas Davis has managed just four such carries despite having 21 redzone carries to McCaffrey’s 13. 

If you look at Davis’ carries from this past Sunday, they are all inside runs – while it makes sense to adapt to what Davis does best, the lack of any real outside run threat allows the defense to compact laterally; that, in turn, makes it harder for Davis to be effective at these inside carries:

 

With McCaffrey out, the Panthers have tried to run the ball outside a couple of times using Curtis Samuel, once on a toss play:

 

And once on a jet sweep:

 

And while neither worked for a couple of reasons, this is something the Panthers should consider going back to if McCaffrey continues to be out, maybe even trying to use Trenton Cannon in this way if Samuel misses Week 7. Without any real threat of an outside run game, it allows the defense to play tight to the line of scrimmage and for the linebackers to press down without risking getting trapped inside.

Early in the season, the Panthers were very run-heavy inside the red zone and were effective at doing so; while the passing game has to be a more significant part of what the Panthers do in the red zone, getting the run game back on track will only help in that regard. 

Receivers Have To Step Up – And So Does Joe Brady

The Panthers receivers haven’t caught a touchdown pass inside the red zone this season.

Needless to say, that isn’t good, but what is possibly worse is that the Panthers’ receivers have only caught three passes that kept pace with the chains, and one of those was to end a quarter where the defense was willing them to complete the pass short of the end zone.

So, what can we learn from the two passing plays to receivers in the red zone that have worked so far this season?

 

Well, the short answer is – unfortunately – not very much.

Both are short throws over the middle to a receiver running across the field from the slot – high percentage throws that teams should probably use more of all over the field – but this, in itself, can’t be the entire passing gameplan for how to get the receivers involved in the red zone. The Panthers have also tried to manufacture receptions in the red zone – this is where they have had some success throwing to backs and tight ends – but as they continue to be unable to generate passing plays in other ways, the easier it is for teams to key in on these plays and focus on taking them away, as the Bears did effectively on Sunday:

 

Yes, DJ Moore had a chance at making the catch at the end on the second play, but that wasn’t a chance that is going to be consistently created by the combination of offensive scheme and player talent. The Panthers shouldn’t stop running these plays, but they can’t be reliant on such plays to throw the ball inside the 20.

While each passing play the Panthers ran in the red zone against the Bears is different, there are three that are worth examining in detail to exemplify why the Panthers have struggled to throw the ball in this area, and why some of it might improve as the season goes on.

Here is the first:

 

First, let’s take a look at this play in terms of the route combinations:

This play has a few different elements worth noting.

Davis is running to the flat, which gives Bridgewater an easy touchdown if the Bears blitz from man coverage. The two innermost receivers on the far side are running sit-down routes to flood an area of the field against zone. Anderson is running a quick out against off coverage while DJ Moore looks to work inside against press. The issue here is that the Bears dropped back into man coverage with a four-man rush, something they did an awful lot on Sunday, with a safety dropping to take away the inside route to Moore, meaning the only place Bridgewater could have gone with the ball is the quick out to Anderson.

However, by the time he recognizes the safety dropping down to take away the inside throw, the timing for that route has passed and Bridgewater tucks the ball despite the lack of pressure – he knows that once the slant has gone, he has nowhere to go with the ball. 

To some extent, this is just the Bears playing extremely good defense – if they had doubled Anderson instead, the pass to Moore would probably have been open, but the fact that both the man-beating routes are quick options meant that once that window has passed there is no plan B.

Now that you know what happened, here it is again:

 

It is easy to pick holes in plays like this – especially if they don’t work – but maybe if the Panthers are going to run this concept again, having a slower-developing man-beater on the far side might have given them more of a chance.

However, what happened on the the second play makes it very hard to level even such nitpicking criticisms against the offense:

 

This play has already gotten some attention for the way in which the Bears were able to shut down the Panthers – it is another great example of why the Bears are the top pass defense in the NFL so far this season.

However, let’s first take a look at the play design:

Again, the Panthers have Davis going to the flat (this is something I think is a good idea, to be clear), with Ian Thomas looking to run in behind any underneath zone over the middle while Anderson sits underneath. Moore looks to be working inside on the slot corner on what appears to be a very skinny post with Roberts running an in route on the far side.

Again, the Bears play man – but rather than having any spare defenders in zone, they look to just bracket Moore and Anderson – leaving the Panthers with a three-on-three. The issue here is that Thomas’ and Davis’ routes have no chance of getting open against competent man coverage (again, using your less effective receivers to run the less valuable routes is a good idea) while Roberts’ route is completely negated by the defender playing with an inside leverage. If Roberts had any kind of option on this route, he chose wrong. But other than that, the Bears were able to pick the two good route runners the Panthers have, double them, and then dare the other receivers to win one-on-one. 

Next, this play is once again matched perfectly by the Bears from a coverage point of view – but this is a prime example of the issue the Panthers face right now. With McCaffrey and Samuel out, the Panthers were missing two of their four big offensive threats, and with only two danger players left from a route-running point of view, defenses are going to be much more able to use safety help and straight bracketing to take them away.

The final play of note from the Bears game shows where they can be effective when they have their full contingent back:

 

Again, let’s start by looking at the play design:

Here, the Panthers run the two outside receivers on the near side vertically before breaking back to the ball. This has the double effect of flooding an intermediate zone while also clearing out space underneath in the flat. Moore runs a quick curl over the middle to offer a checkdown while the slot receiver runs diagonally across the field and the running back cuts out to the vacated side of the field to work against the linebacker in what looks to be an option route.

Here, the Panthers are able to generate two excellent opportunities, a receiver running across the field against a linebacker and a running back working one-on-one against another linebacker with tons of space either side. Curtis Samuel and Christian McCaffrey likely take advantage of both opportunities, but with them out, the Panthers need other players to be able to attract some coverage away from Moore and Anderson – at the moment, they just aren’t showing the ability to do that. 

Yes, DJ Moore and Robby Anderson need to be bigger parts of the Panthers’ offense in the red zone, but right now they are just too easy for opposing teams to take away if nobody else shows the ability to consistently win one-on-ones. The Saints this week will likely offer much less resistance defensively than the Bears, especially in terms of their coverage depth, and the Panthers might get a boost if Samuel returns – but the Panthers need players like Ian Thomas and Seth Roberts to show they can win their routes.

Joe Brady also needs to show that he can create open receivers without having to rely on play-action. Yes, receivers need to win their routes, but if teams are going to consistently go man-to-man with the Panthers as the Bears did, Brady needs to show that he can use pick plays and the like to create an open man. It might not be pretty, but the Panthers need to be able to throw the ball against man coverage in the red zone – and right now they just can’t. 

The Panthers aren’t likely to become a great red zone team overnight – given the injuries they have right now, it is somewhat understandable that they aren’t conquering all before them in this regard, but the good offenses are able to make the most out of what they have, and while the Panthers don’t currently have one of the best healthy sets of offensive skill position players, they still have enough to be able to be better than they have been.

Some of this comes down to players executing at their highest level, but the pressure is also on Joe Brady to show that he can adapt to what he has right now to find ways to gain positive yardage where it really matters. That might mean some outside runs for Trenton Cannon, it might be some attempts to allow Brandon Zylstra to work one-on-one in the slot or it might be something else entirely, but the Panthers can’t keep doing what they did against Chicago and expect it to magically work out better just because not every opponent will be as good as the Bears. 

(Top Photo Via Brandon Todd/Carolina Panthers)

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