CHARLOTTE — Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera has said several times this offseason his teams rushing game in 2013 will look more similar to the second half of the 2012 season than the first half.
The Panthers, Rivera said, will employ less of the zone-read option plays that relied on quarterback Cam Newton reading the defense and deciding what to do with the ball, and more on traditional running styles.
How did the change play out for Carolina last season? An Observer review of every rushing play from the 2012 season showed:
• The Panthers reduced their zone-read rushing plays by nearly a third from the first half of the season to the second half, but gained more yards running them.
Through eight games in 2012, the Panthers had employed a zone-read rush 72 times for 370 yards (5.14 yards per carry). That accounted for 33.9 percent of their rushing plays and 39.7 percent of their rushing yardage.
In the final eight games, the Panthers used zone read 56 times for 397 yards (7.09 yards per carry). That was 22.4 percent of rushes and 34.3 percent of rushing yardage.
• Carolina increased the number of traditional handoffs, either from the quarterback under center or out of the shotgun formation, substantially from the first half of the season to the second. The Panthers used them on 84 snaps and gained 260 yards (3.1 yards per carry) in the first eight games. That was 39.6 percent of their rushes and 27.9 percent of yardage.
In the final eight games, Carolina had 130 traditional handoffs for 496 yards (3.81 yards per carry) in the second half of the year, accounting for 52 percent of the rushes and 42.8 percent of the yardage.
• Zone read and traditional handoffs accounted for 74 percent of all rushes in 2012. The other 26 percent were made up of tosses, scrambles, designed quarterback runs, options, end arounds, wildcat runs, kneels and other miscellaneous rushes.
Designed quarterback runs and scrambles alone make up 16 percent of all rushes.
• Newton, the top pick in the 2011 draft, took some punishment in 2012. According to ESPN, he was hit or sacked while throwing or rushing 162 times last season, 40 more times than the next closest quarterback, Indianapolis Colts rookie Andrew Luck.
He was also the first quarterback since Donovan McNabb in 2000 (and fourth ever) to lead his team in rushing. He had 741 yards on the ground, 4 more than Williams. (Williams numbers suffered when he was demoted five games into the season, then returned to a starting role when Jonathan Stewart missed the final five games with injuries.)
But the Panthers also called fewer designed quarterback runs bootlegs, draws and keepers for Newton in the final eight games. After having 20 rushes (9.4 percent of first-half rushing plays) for 89 yards in the first half of the year, Newton had 17 designed rushes (6.8 percent of second-half rushing plays) for 55 yards in the final eight games.
• Lessening Newtons rushing load coincided with an improvement in his passing performance. After going through the first eight games with a 77.7 quarterback rating, six touchdowns and eight interceptions, he had 13 touchdowns and five interceptions in the final eight games and improved his final quarterback rating to 86.2.
• The changes in the running game were a factor in a turnaround in the record, too. Carolina went 2-6 in the first eight games but 5-3 in the final eight.
Whether the changes were the cause of the improved record or a result of playing more often with a lead is open to debate.
For 2013, though, Riveras intent is clear. With offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski gone after being named head coach in Cleveland, Mike Shula has assumed his role.
Shula will lead an offense that is more traditional in the running game.
Rivera stopped short of saying the team relied too much on the zone read last year, but he intends to use a rushing philosophy that reduces pressure on Newton.
I think we put a lot on Cams plate, Rivera said during Junes minicamp. If you go back and look at what we did the second half, thats what I envision.
That means the zone-read will become more of a wrinkle in the Panthers offensive scheme than the staple it was early last year.
Well use it, and well use it very smartly, Rivera said.
Newton welcomes the change.
Success for the Carolina Panthers has been getting our running backs involved in the game early and letting those guys do what they do, Newton said at minicamp. Everyone knows we have playmakers on the offensive side of the ball, but for us to be successful we have to run the football.
Fullback Mike Tolbert eyes the opportunity.
Whenever you got a talented backfield like we got, you kind of want to get back to the basics, he said. Run the ball and try to make people stop it.
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