Panthers' victories hanging in the balance

When Carolina is able to run as well as pass, W’s are the result

jjones@charlotteobserver.comDecember 12, 2012 

Ron Rivera and the Carolina Panthers have sought offensive balance all season but have rarely found it.

But in Sunday’s 30-20 win against the Atlanta Falcons, the Panthers were able to balance pass and run for their biggest win of the season.

The Panthers passed 35 times and rushed 32 in the victory over the NFC South champion Falcons. Twelve first downs came via passing, and 10 on the ground. This balance helped Carolina’s offense stay on the field 11 minutes longer than Atlanta’s.

Some of the success came from Carolina’s different personnel groupings. Rivera said the team had 20 to 22 snaps in “12” personnel, a set that includes one running back and two tight ends.

This grouping, used heavily by teams such as Houston and New England, was used extensively by Carolina last season, with tight ends Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey. But since Shockey’s departure, the Panthers haven’t used the formation as much.

“Last year, 12 personnel was a big part of what we did. We’ve gotten back to it,” Rivera said. “A big part of it is the emergence of Gary Barnidge, coming back off the broken ankle. I think that’s really helped us because he’s also a vertical threat as well. You start to exploit those different formations with that 12 personnel. It also helps Greg Olsen. The last few weeks Greg’s made some really big plays for us.”

Olsen leads the team in touchdown catches with five, and he’s having the best receiving season of his career – 691 receiving yards with three games to go.

Barnidge, in his fourth season, had 12 catches and no touchdowns before this season, but has five grabs for 58 yards and one touchdown in 2012.

Second-year quarterback Cam Newton has also been instrumental. In the past four games, Newton has accounted for 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. He has also gotten better protection, with an offensive line that has finally solidified following a season-ending injury to Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil.

“I think the biggest thing, obviously … Cam has played better, more consistent,” offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said. “The turnovers, he’s eliminated those the past few weeks, so that’s been important to us. I think the offensive line we had shuffled around quite a bit and we’ve settled in on that group and guys working together have settled in and are playing better and protecting better, and that always helps a quarterback.”

Some of the moves on the offensive line included sliding Geoff Hangartner to center, moving right tackle Byron Bell to guard for a game and using Jeff Byers as the starting guard. In the past three games, the Panthers have allowed just five sacks and rushed for an average of 156.3 yards.

“You look at guys like (rookie left guard) Amini (Silatolu), and I think he played one of his best games (Sunday), and he’s gotten better every single week,” Chudzinski said. “I think Byron’s gotten better the last few weeks and Garry Williams has settled in at right guard.”

Jones: 704-358-5223; Twitter: @jjones9

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