Using a vanilla offense in preseason, Carolina Panthers will spice it up soon

jjones@charlotteobserver.comAugust 17, 2013 

Through two preseason games, the Carolina Panthers offense hardly resembles itself from the previous two seasons.

There have been no read options, no quarterback keepers, zero Wildcat formations and barely any play action.

But this isn’t what the Panthers’ offense under Mike Shula is predicted to look like in his first year as offensive coordinator after taking over the position vacated by Rob Chudzinski. Instead, Carolina – like every team in the NFL – is running a vanilla brand of its playbook, using what quarterback Cam Newton calls its “bread and butter” plays and apparently leaving out the jelly.

“(People say) ‘a lot of teams aren’t showing up in the preseason’ and ‘certain plays aren’t working,’” running back DeAngelo Williams said Thursday night after the Panthers’ 14-9 loss at Philadelphia. “They really blow preseason games out of proportion when the fact of the matter is, nobody’s opening their playbook. The defenses aren’t exotic. They’re regular run defenses – stop the run. They’re regular pass defenses.

“Nobody is showing their hand because they know who’s watching. The other teams are, so it’s harder to game plan Week 1, 2.”

For Carolina’s 2013 offense, there’s an element of surprise. It’s understood the Panthers are going to a more traditional running game – a re-emphasis on pounding the ball while remaining balanced on offense. But past that, no one outside Bank of America Stadium knows what – and how much of it – the Panthers will run this year.

Shula inherited an offense that produced the franchise’s highest net offensive yards in consecutive years with its innovative style. But after 45 official snaps in two games for Newton, the Panthers have manufactured only 202 yards, 13 points and one interception returned for a touchdown in what amounts to nearly three quarters of play.

And right now, they’re OK with that.

“Absolutely, absolutely,” said Newton Thursday after being asked if the offense is going in the right direction. “There are just some things we just need to (iron) out. … But all in all, I think we moved the ball and executed really well. We can do better and we will do better as this preseason progresses.”

The Panthers totaled 128 zone-read rushes for 767 yards last year, and so far this preseason they have yet to run one. The read option, which Rivera has said will be less a staple and more a wrinkle in this year’s playbook, has been installed during training camp periods, and it’s just one example of play calls that Carolina has yet to unveil.

Newton became the first quarterback in the NFL since 2000 to lead his team in rushing when he finished with 741 yards last year. Be it zone read, scrambles or designed quarterback runs, Newton was one of the team’s primary ball carriers. So far, he’s gained 5 yards on one scramble.

The play-action pass is another playbook favorite that’s barely emerged. Of Newton’s 45 snaps, four have involved play action. When Newton hit a stretch of five full games without an interception late last year, he went 31 of 44 in play-action passes with 562 yards and six touchdowns.

That play is effective because the fake handoff freezes the linebackers, giving receivers more time to create space between themselves and the defender. It also forces opponents to stay honest when defending the run.

“The biggest part is keeping those big guys off us and keeping those linebackers guessing,” Williams said. “If you’re able to do that, then you’re able to be successful in the running game.”

Not only is Carolina missing items from the playbook, the Panthers are also lacking two of their top three rushers. Jonathan Stewart will likely be out the remainder of the preseason while recovering from ankle surgery, and fullback Mike Tolbert has yet to play with a hamstring strain.

Missing Stewart forced Williams to be the every-down back, and he totaled 12 carries in 29 snaps Thursday. Without Tolbert, Carolina’s backfield has lacked a true rushing threat at fullback. Richie Brockel, Tolbert’s backup, has rushed three times for 12 yards in two years as a Panther.

“We’re trying to score, we’re trying to move the ball. We’re not installing a fake offense that we only run in the preseason,” veteran left tackle Jordan Gross said. “You have certain goals that the coaches want to accomplish each week and different plays you want to feature. You’re still disappointed when you lose, especially when you don’t score touchdowns.”

The Panthers’ playbook is sure to open up come Sept. 8 against Seattle, especially if all their offensive pieces are healthy. Newton knows the team can once again be a top-12 offense like it has in his first two seasons, but for now, it’s a matter of running the plays that are called.

Even if they aren’t that exciting.

“It can be dangerous, it can be very dangerous,” said Newton of the Panthers’ offense. “But you know at the end of the day it all comes down to us executing. Whatever play is called – pass or run – we have to execute at all times.”

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service