Analyzing the Unique Panthers Running Game

The Panthers made it to Super Bowl 50 with one of the most dangerous running attacks in the NFL, having racked up at least 100 yards rushing in 29 straight games. Offensive Coordinator Mike Shula has utilized the strengths of Cam Newton to create a versatile and unique running attack that is very difficult to prepare for because of its mixed flow and deception. This article breaks down 6 key concepts from the Panthers running game that Denver will have to prepare for:

  • QB Buck Sweep (RPO)
  • Counter OF
  • QB G/T Counter Read or “Flash”
  • Jet Sweep Split Zone
  • Inverted/Power Veer
  • Triple Option

QB Buck Sweep (RPO)

Carolina is not the only NFL team that runs Buck Sweep, but Cam Newton allows the Panthers to run QB Buck Sweep, opening up other possibilities for the offense. Like the traditional version, the Panthers Buck Sweep involves 2 pulling lineman leading the way for Cam to run around the edge:

RPO Buck

Here, the left tackle, right tackle, and tight end (#88) Greg Olsen are all blocking down, while the center (#67) Ryan Kalil and right guard (#70) Trai Turner pull around to lead block for Cam. Meanwhile, (#35) Mike Tolbert motions behind Cam Newton and runs a swing screen to the left, drawing multiple Arizona defenders. Tolbert’s influence creates a huge numbers advantage for Carolina in the box, as none of Carolina’s blockers even have to account for the middle linebacker. The pulling lineman are untouched to the second level, leading to a touchdown:

The box angle doesn’t show the brilliance of the scheme and how difficult it is to defend. The high angle shows that this QB Buck Sweep is likely also an RPO, or run/pass option:

Outnumbered RPO

As you can see, Cam and the Panthers also have the option to the throw the swing screen up top if they have a numbers advantage. Here, both Cardinal defenders immediately sprint out, making it an easy keep for Cam. This is an extremely difficult mixed flow read for linebackers; multiple lineman are pulling right, yet the running back is sprinting left, the QB can open and throw left, and there are three wide receivers able to block for the swing pass as well.

Denver has a few options to combat this RPO: they can play 1 high safety and bring another linebacker into the box, or play press coverage to the trips side while having the linebackers key the pulling lineman to make Cam get rid of the ball to the screen.


Counter OF

Counter OF is a scheme involving one guard and either a fullback or H-back as pullers. The Steelers often run Counter OF from a single back set, but the Panthers execute the play from I-formation. Counter OF is also known as power counter because of the similarities to Power run scheme. However, traditional Power has the pulling guard go up to the second level. In Counter OF, the fullback goes up to the second level:

Counter OF

Here, (#73) left tackle Michael Oher and (#68) left guard Andrew Norwell have a double team up to the linebacker. The center has a down block on the tilted 1-technique defensive tackle, and the right tackle (#74) is on man to man. Right guard (#70) Trai Turner is pulling for the defensive end, while fullback (#35) Mike Tolbert is pulling up for the play side linebacker after taking his counter steps to influence the linebackers:


This run exhibits great execution on three separate occasions: first, when the Seattle defensive end squeezes down to replace the left tackle, the pulling guard (#70) plays with great technique to hook, or “log” the defensive end. Next, fullback Mike Tolbert sifts through traffic to get up and deliver a block on the playside linebacker. Finally, running back (#28) Jonathan Stewart shows great patience to allow his blocks to develop. Many running backs would get tackled for a minimal gain here because of an unwillingness to let blocks develop.

QB G/T Counter Read “Flash”

Another mixed flow play in the Panthers running game is the QB counter read, also known as QB G/T counter, or QB counter flash. Here, both the right guard and right tackle are pulling up for linebackers, leaving the center to block back on a 3-technique. This is normally a tough assignment for a center. However, the read element greatly helps the line because the running back is going the other way. The running back will run parallel to the line of scrimmage while the QB rides laterally to create a moving mesh point. The defensive end on the side of the pullers is left unblocked:


QB path

This play will rarely be a give to the running back. Instead, the QB/RB mesh likely is meant to influence linebackers, effectively block the read man without touching him, and make the center’s block on the 3-technique easier. The only instance where the QB would hand the ball off is if the read defensive end crashed down hard with the pulling lineman. Once Cam rides the mesh, he pulls the ball and is running QB counter:

Meanwhile, below is an example of how QB counter flash can get outside if the playside defensive end crashes down due to a stunt or because of the running back’s action:


Jet Sweep Split Zone

The next play in the Panthers running game is the Jet sweep split zone. Split zone is a zone blocking scheme where an H-Back, fullback, or tight end will come across the formation for a kick out block, creating a natural crease for the running back. The Panthers create further confusion for the defense by also adding motion and a potential jet sweep element. Here, all the Panther lineman “zone their gap” and take a play side zone step, while Greg Olsen comes across the formation to kick out (#44) Markus Golden of Arizona. However, the jet sweep along with Cam Newton as a run threat renders Golden completely frozen, and Olsen decides to move up to the second level. The linebacker (#51) Kevin Minter is also influenced by the sweep action, allowing him to be walled off by Olsen:

Jet Split Zone

Once again, the Panthers are able to eliminate defenders from the play without ever touching them– the threat of jet sweep or Cam’s running ability creates an extremely favorable numbers matchup and a huge crease for Jonathan Stewart:

RB Path SZ

Box Angle:

High Angle:


Inverted/Power Veer

Inverted/Power Veer is an excellent compliment to QB G/T counter “flash” because the former is a full flow lineman and running back action while the latter is a mixed flow scheme. Inverted/Power Veer is blocked up front with a pulling guard like power, but one man is left unblocked and is the “read” man. The running back will run parallel to the line of scrimmage while the QB rides laterally to create a moving mesh point. If the read man steps out and angles toward the running back, the QB should keep it and run QB power. If the read man attacks downhill toward the mesh point, the QB should hand it off to the RB running outside. Note that the Panthers also occasionally also run Power/Inverted Veer reading the linebacker while “logging” the play side defensive end with the pulling guard.

Cam 47 run blocking

Below, Seattle plays the Inverted/Power Veer about as well as a defense can against Carolina. Defensive End (#56) Cliff Avril gets his hands on tight end (#88) Greg Olsen, (#72) Michael Bennett quickly beats the lineman in front of him, and the backside stays home:


Triple Option

The Panthers running game also uses triple option often and effectively. Carolina has the ability to mix in 2 running backs with Cam Newton or use 1 running back and a wide receiver for the pitch option. The Panthers make it difficult to defend their triple option by having an offset back opposite the tight end. This makes the defense declare and play one way or the other. If the defense plays heavier toward the tight end side, the Panthers run triple option to the offset back. If the defense is shifted towards the offset back, Cam Newton can audible into a run toward the tight end. Below, the Cardinals have 8 in the box and are shaded towards the tight end. There is a huge natural bubble between the defensive lineman and (#44) Markus Golden, making for a perfect triple option front. Triple Option

In triple option, two defenders are left unblocked. The defensive end or outside linebacker (first level defender) is read like in read option. If he crashes down and the QB keeps it, the second level defender is read in pitch phase. Of course, triple option reads are subject to change as the defense scrape exchanges and adjusts.

Once again, the Panthers running game schemes out defenders without blocking them; (#22) Tony Jefferson sees the pitch man go out wide and immediately chases. (#44) Golden has the QB run responsibility. However, Carolina has excellent down block angles with Golden and Jefferson out of the picture. Jefferson vacates, left tackle Michael Oher seals off (#51) Kevin Minter, and running back (#28) Jonathan Stewart has an enormous lane to run through:

If the defense decides to overplay the QB and running back, like below, Cam is more than capable of getting the play to the edge. Note that with all this focus on the run game, defenses are often left in 1 on 1 situations against the wide receivers:


And finally, the Panthers running game keeps the defense from over pursuing with the threat of a reverse from speedster Ted Ginn:


Overall, the Panthers running game is extremely difficult to prepare for. They have a variety of mixed flow reads that put linebackers and defensive linemen in a bind. Additionally, many of their run plays compliment each other, making it difficult to guess or overplay one particular scheme. Their option package is diverse, stretches a defense horizontally, and makes you account for every yard on the field. Carolina eliminates defenders without ever blocking them by creating hesitation, flow, over pursuit, and blocking angles. Aside from the excellent scheme, the Panthers are physical at the point of attack and have the best running Quarterback in the NFL in Cam Newton. Keep an eye out for some of these run schemes as well as variations while watching Super Bowl 50.

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