Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has come along with the NFL passing game sooner than many expected. After one year with a Division I team, the Auburn Tigers, in 2010, Newton broke several NFL rookie passing records on his way to the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Through two games in his second professional season, Newton has picked up where he left off, throwing for 553 yards. In last Sunday's win over the New Orleans Saints, Newton threw just 20 passes and completed just 14, but his 12.65 yards per attempt average and high completion rate indicate that he's learning how to attain accuracy in a more expansive and explosive passing game.
One of the ways in which offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski is facilitating this is through the frequent and effective use of advanced route concepts. Rather than just go with two-wide sets or tight twins, "Chud" is formulating an offense that looks a lot like what former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator and current Arizona Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt put together for Ben Roethlisberger in his early NFL seasons. The comparison is apt -- like Big Ben, Newton is tough in the pocket, effectively mobile when he scrambles, and has a howitzer for an arm.
Through Newton, Chudzinski was able to riddle the Saints' defense with formation and route ideas very familiar to anyone who's watched a Steelers game since about 2005. Trips (three receivers aligned horizontally to one side), bunch (three receivers aligned in a triangle to either side) and stack release (two receivers stacked near the formation) were all frequently seen in the victory over New Orleans. The Panthers tended to be more conventional in their running plays, but as this concept advances, they'll be able to rip off long running plays against defenses aligned to play the pass.
Newton hit receiver Brandon LaFell for a 27-yard reception on the Panthers' first offensive play of the game. This came out of a tight bunch left look in which tight end Gary Barnidge stayed home to help left tackle Jordan Gross block right defensive end Will Smith. This gave Newton the time in the pocket needed as LaFell (the outside man in the formation) and tight end Greg Olsen (the middleman) ran their routes.
Strong-side linebacker Scott Shanle backed off covering Barnidge when Barnidge stayed in, instead handing Olsen off to safety Roman Harper on a seam route. Meanwhile, LaFell headed to the sideline on a deep pattern as defensive back Malcolm Jenkins proved unable to keep up. Shanle was also tasked with watching running back DeAngelo Williams as he came out of the backfield as a receiver, which prevented any help to Jenkins.
This was an excellent example of how to take a defense to its breaking point with grouped formation concepts.
The Panthers got another great shot play in the second quarter, a 35-yard pass to Steve Smith on third-and-15 with 5:24 left in the first half.
This was an outstanding example of how a motion-to-trips idea can fool a defense into thinking that the primary target is somewhere in that three-receiver cluster when the real objective is to force one-on-one matchups with your best receiver. The Steelers use this idea a lot -- whenever they have an "X-iso" receiver on the left side against the defense's top cover corner, they love to run bunch and trips right to force top coverage away from the main man.
LaFell went in motion from left to right, and when Harper blitzed from the curl/flat area after moving up (a frequent blitz look by the Saints), there was even more of a formation advantage on that side.
As Olsen and wide receiver Louis Murphy ran deeper routes, LaFell hit the flat area with a quick stop pattern, freezing the mid-range defense. Responding to the deep routes away from the actual play, safety Corey White faded away from cornerback Patrick Robinson, who had Smith as the "X-iso" one-on-one. And when you have Steve Smith one-on-one in a deep route, your odds of success are not very good.
Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday, the Giants faced far more 2x2 looks -- two backs and two receivers -- than the Panthers are likely to show them. And as the Giants struggled against Dallas' more wide-open offense in their season opener, you can bet that the Panthers will be looking to gain the advantage from the moment they hit the line of scrimmage. So far, the best way for Carolina to accomplish that objective is to quite literally put the defense in a bunch.