The Panthers, weary of seeing their 6-foot-6 (and generously-listed), 260-pound star absorb blow after blow in the pocket, wanted to make life easier on their quarterback. That meant giving him more versatile weapons in the passing game, men who could take a quick throw or handoff and gain big yardage.
Running backs Christian McCaffrey (No. 8 overall pick that year) and Curtis Samuel (a second-round pick that year) represented that hope. While McCaffrey did some of his best work in college in the passing game, Samuel — a 4.3 guy — thrived in a jack-of-all-trades role at the Percy Harvin spot in Ohio State’s 2016 offense.
The Panthers’ offense sputtered some in 2017 as those guys got acclimated to the NFL, but we’re starting to see the strategy pay off this season. McCaffrey is already among the league’s most elusive backs, and Samuel — who missed the first four games of this year with an irregular heartbeat — showed potential in his season debut Sunday, catching two passes (on four targets) for 37 yards in the Panthers’ 33-31 win over the New York Giants, including one that epitomized the first thing I enjoyed from Week 5, which was …
1. Short, but dynamic, throws for Cam Newton
Check out this dynamic, 25-yard touchdown catch by Samuel below:
The first thing I like is Samuel’s elusiveness. He somehow scored after being surrounded by five Giants at one point. This is the kind of easy-but-dynamic play the Panthers were hoping to add to their offense a year ago, and the same can also be said for Newton’s second touchdown pass of the day to McCaffrey:
What I liked most overall from Samuel’s score is that it came off play-action. The Panthers are a play-action heavy team — they call it 26 percent of the time, according to Football Outsiders, tied for the sixth-most in the league — but their yards per play on such calls is only 6.7, which is tied for 24th.
That’s already up from the mark of 6.2 yards per play off play-action they averaged last season. Adding someone like Samuel — not to mention receiver D.J. Moore, an athletic 2018 first-round rookie who is starting to look more comfortable— to the mix more consistently should help that number continue to go up as the Panthers start turning short passes into big plays more frequently.
2. Cam Erving, starting left guard for the NFL’s baddest offense
When the Kansas City Chiefs traded for Cameron Erving last August for a fifth-round pick, the trade was met with taunting from Cleveland fans (who swore that the 2015 first-round pick was a bust) and confusion from Chiefs fans (who largely assumed the same).
And while it’s true that Erving struggled to find a fit in Cleveland, playing tackle and guard and center, he seems to have found a home at left guard for the Chiefs, who signed him to a two-year extension in early September and have been rewarded with the best play of his career on the league’s No. 1 offense.
“I got rewarded with a contract extension at the beginning of the season but that’s never been enough for me,” Erving told Yahoo Sports. “For everybody who always said I couldn’t do this, who said I couldn’t play at this level, I envision that every time I step on that field.”
After spending 2017 getting acclimated to Kansas City’s offensive system, Erving reported to camp this year stronger, more flexible and more motivated than to prove he could, in fact, be an NFL starter.
“I definitely got stronger this offseason,” Erving said. “I worked on my hips, did a whole bunch of squatting and lower-body work, abs, core.”
Erving has also been downright nasty at various points of the season. His Undertaker-like chokeslam of Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree in Week 2 was a sign of things to come:
“I’m definitely bringing a lot more energy and an edge because I’m playing with a chip on my shoulder,” Erving said. “You take opportunities to let guys know it’s gonna be a physical game.”
What Erving did in the first quarter of the Chiefs’ win over the Jags on Sunday is another example of his improved aggression and attitude. On a third-and-1, Erving was matched up with All-Pro defensive end Calais Campbell, a monstrous 6-8, 300-pounder. Erving started the play by selling the zone run, all while maintaining the proper depth for the play-action pass that was called.
“I just wanted to take a good set,” Erving said. “Then it was time to fight.”
Erving does just that, throwing Campbell — a bonafide stud — to the ground in pass protection:
Erving’s improvement is about more than plays like this. He has also used his athleticism to climb to the second level efficiently and perform difficult reach blocks:
He still needs to work on his leverage and technique because he’s a 6-6 guy and that’s tall for a guard. Opponents sometimes get under him and slide past him, but that can be corrected by technique as the season goes on. As Erving continues to gain confidence, it’s starting to look like this was a deal that will pay off for the Chiefs.
“I’m proving to myself and guys I play with that I can compete and help the team win,” Erving said. “I’ve always wanted to be a Pro Bowl or All-Pro player, and I feel like I’m on my way to becoming those things. I’m in a system with a bunch of good players and it’s been really fun, so I’m gonna continue to just ride this wave and we’re gonna rock out.”
3. Robert Woods layin’ the smackdown
You guys know me by now — I love when anyone blocks with nastiness. That goes doubly so for wideouts, who eschew contact so often that when one doesn’t, the power of Christ compels me — in that priest’s voice from “The Exorcist” — to show them some love.
Just check out Robert Woods (No. 17), who is tight to the formation next to left tackle Andrew Whitworth, and watch him go to work on Justin Coleman (No. 28) during this 2-yard TD run from Todd Gurley:
Woods isn’t known as a run-blocking monster (like Indianapolis’ Ryan Grant, for instance), so my delight was rooted as much in my surprise as it was his dominance on the play. Regardless, kudos Mr. Woods — let’s see it again in the future.
4. Brian Winters is disgusting
Winters, 27, has been one of the better pass-blocking guards in the NFL this season. At 6-4, 320 pounds, he’s strong and stout, and entering his sixth season, his awareness has steadily improved since his rookie year.
All of this makes him a bad man for a blitzing linebacker to meet in the phone booth, as Denver’s Shane Ray found out on Sunday. In the video below, just watch Winters (No. 67) destroy Ray (No. 56) in the hole:
Rookie quarterback Sam Darnold is the Jets’ future, and the franchise will place a priority on keeping him upright for years to come. Darnold has been sacked 11 times this season, tied for 13th among quarterbacks, and efforts like Winters’ on Sunday will only help them get that number down.
5. Detroit … power football?!
The Detroit Lions have had one of the league’s worst rushing offenses for a decade. But the Lions’ ground game has shown signs of life this year, and that’s no coincidence. When I spent some time with the Lions during training camp, I noticed that they were hitting more than many teams I visited. I was also told they had been in pads for about six days straight, a rarity in today’s NFL.
Add in the team’s decision to draft center/guard Frank Ragnow in the first round and trade up for Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson in the second, and it was clear general manager Bob Quinn and new Lions coach Matt Patricia were intent on running the football this season.
Despite Detroit’s 2-3 record this season, we can already see improvement. After finishing dead last in rushing last year (76.3 yards per game), the Lions rank 21st this season (97.2 yards per game). And in their 31-23 win over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, the Lions not only scored one touchdown on the ground — they scored two.
But the thing that impressed me isn’t so much that they ran it in — the Lions’ red-zone rushing offense was actually above average last year, when they converted 48 percent of red-zone runs (according to Sharp Football) — but how they did it, and who they did it against. It was pure power football, the likes of which the Lions have struggled to execute effectively for many seasons.
Check out this 1-yard plunge by LeGarrette Blount in the first quarter:
The Lions went with six linemen and ran a simple HB lead play right into the teeth of the defense. The center, Graham Glasgow, teamed up with fullback Nick Bellore, right guard Kenny Wiggins and Ragnow to clear a sliver of space for Blount to pile drive through. All the Packers attacking the interior — from big Mike Daniels (No. 76) to Kenny Clark (No. 97) — are good run defenders, while the linebacker in the middle of the play (Antonio Morrison, No. 44) blew up Bellore and nearly made the play.
Later in the quarter, Blount again took it in from the 1-yard line, this time using his nimble feet (for a 250-pounder) and nose for the end zone to read the outstanding double-team block by Taylor Decker (No. 68) and Ragnow (No. 77) to chuck his way in:
The Lions are on a bye this week, but this win provided nice momentum as they look to build on their 2-3 record. If they do, know that a somewhat-revived run game will likely play a role in that.
THINGS I ENJOYED ARCHIVE
WEEK 4: The juice of Patriots RB Sony Michel and lineman who slowed down Von Miller
WEEK 3: Mahomes magic and Lane Johnson’s acting chops
WEEK 2: Dallas’ deep ball, and the ridiculousness of Mahomes and Saquon
WEEK 1: Andy Reid’s goal-line circus and more