Know your enemy: The Carolina Panthers' zone-read, read-option run game

Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

In Week 1, Carolina rushed for 10 yards on 13 attempts in a loss to Tampa Bay. 10. Yards. One-zero. On 13 attempts. This is from a team that averaged 150 yards on the ground per game in 2011 on league-best 5.4 yards per carry over the entire season, while also leading the NFL with 26 rushing touchdowns.

In Week 2, Carolina rushed for 219 yards on 41 carries in a surprising upset 35-27 upset over the Saints, racking up 5.3 yards per tote and punching it in 3 times on the ground. In their Week 3 loss to the Giants, the Panthers carried the ball 20 times for 60 yards and a score; a 3.0 yard per carry average. Week 4? 199 yards on 35 carries for 2 scores and 5.7 yards per carry. Which Carolina team will show up in Charlotte on Sunday? Great question - and the Seahawks' stout run defense has their work cut out for them to live up to their rep as one of the better run defending teams in the NFL.

Originally I wanted to give a whole speech about the history of the zone read and all that my time ran out so I wanted to just give some brief notes on the types of unique looks the Seahawks will be getting from Cam Newton, Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams, and Mike Tolbert on Sunday. Most teams don't really run the types of base running schemes that Carolina heavily favors, so it will be very interesting, just from a schematic viewpoint.

The Panthers are pretty variable in what they run; you'll see them use quick pitches or tosses fairly frequently with Cam under center, they'll pass out of the shotgun, and utilize regular old vanilla 5- and 7-step drop passing schemes. The three variations of zone reads that I wanted to break down were what I'll call, for simplicity sake (though I'm not sure how the team would call them out) the zone read, the option, and the read option. These are not their technical names -- just used to give you an idea of the variability of what teams call generally, the zone-read option.

I'd expect we'll see a little bit of all three of these types of plays against Carolina on Sunday. Carolina is similar to Seattle in that they like to run hard, force teams to stack the box, then throw it over your head. After winning at New Orleans, Newton explained, "You do read option, read option, read option and then get them to play seven or eight in the box and you've got so many variations of plays and passes you can run off that."

Let's talk about a few looks we may see Sunday.

The zone read:

Essentially, the linemen for Carolina, on the snap, all move laterally to the right in what looks like a zone run that direction. Cam Newton is in the shotgun, has Jonathan Stewart on his left, and will simply read the weakside defensive end to decide whether to hand the ball off or keep it himself. As Chris Brown explains in an excellent look at the Panthers' offense over at Grantland, "The purpose of the zone read is really nothing more than to keep [the backside defender] from attacking the running back; otherwise it's just an old-fashioned run play."

If defensive end John Abraham crashes to the inside to take away Stewart and the run, Newton will keep it himself. If Abraham hesitates, in order to contain a Newton run, Cam simply hands off the football and allows Stewart to attack the gap that is now left uncovered.

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At the snap, WR Brandon LaFell cracks back across the formation. Newton holds the ball out for Stewart, then finds the DE to the weak side.

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In this case, he's looking for #54, John Abraham. Abraham moves to the inside through the B-gap (inside the LT) and Cam has an easy choice.

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A couple frames later, you see Abraham crashing hard toward Stewart to fill the gap, and Cam pulls the football back and takes off toward the sideline. Containment to that side is completely compromised.

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Here you can see that Abraham has bitten badly on the handoff fake. Now only Dunta Robinson is left on the outside and LaFell puts a nice block on him to spring Cam for 32 yards.

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Next variation... later in the game, now 2nd quarter.

The good old classic option play (off play-action):

Panthers are in their 12 personnel grouping with two in-line TEs left and Jonathan Stewart in the backfield.

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At the snap - it's almost a half play-action fake to the right, which works slightly to move the Atlanta defenders that direction for a beat. Carolina's offensive linemen are in what looks like pass-blocking mode, except for a pulling guard to the weak side.

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Cam reverses direction and begins a bootleg to the strongside.

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J-Stew mirrors him a few yards back and as Newton approaches the edge, the corner must decide whether to commit to Cam or to hold contain on Stewart. He semi-commits to Newton so Newton pitches it.

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Stewart picks up 6 yards on the 1st down play. Kind of too easy.

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Another wrinkle is introduced to this package of plays, this time in the 3rd quarter.

The "read option":

This version of the read option is a combination of the last two plays. Carolina in their 'full house' formation, with DeAngelo Williams in the backfield, Newton in the pistol, flanked on either side by Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert. Swoon.

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At the snap, Newton again reads the weakside defensive end, in this case, Ray Edwards.

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Edwards hesitates ever so slightly then takes a step in toward Stewart as Newton holds the ball to his belly.

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Newton reads this easily and pulls the ball back, taking off outside back toward the short side of the field. Note DeAngelo Williams mirroring a few yards behind.

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What you now have is a classic option run. Newton has the choice to pitch it to Williams or keep it himself, and in this case, decides to keep it and grab an easy first down.

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How the Seahawks plan to defend these types of plays remains to be seen but it probably does help that they've got some excellent speed at the defensive end and linebacker positions. Closing speed and range at those positions, plus very strong and physical cornerbacks, present an interesting matchup for this Carolina scheme; the types of players the Seahawks have on defense - big, strong, and fast - represent the reason that most teams don't run the option at all, but regardless, Carolina has had some definite success with it, using Cam Newton as the crux of everything.

It will be interesting to see how often the Hawks use their nickel defensive line groups over their base formations with Red Bryant at defensive end; it will be interesting to watch how well they can defend the multiplicity of these formations.

Speed and athleticism can make up for the confusing nature of these types of plays, and Seattle will need personnel that can track down and tackle Newton effectively when he gets outside of the hashes and on the run.

As TCU coach Gary Patterson told the Pete Thamel of the NY Times (via Smart Football), on the subject of how the hell to defend the zone read, "If the defensive end is fast enough to be able to play the running back or the quarterback instead of some other person on your defense, that frees up a guy. If nine guys out of your 11 can run somebody down, it always helps."

Look for Mike Morgan, Malcolm Smith, and possibly Winston Guy or Jeron Johnson to see significant snaps, and it wouldn't surprise me to see Bruce Irvin get a heavy dose of playing time. It should be very interesting.

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More reading:

Defending the zone-read: athleticism and the "scrape-exchange" | Smart Football
Much of what is new in defending the spread involves giving different looks on the backside of all those "zone-read" and other read plays that spread teams are so fond of. For example, on the typical zone-read play, the line is responsible for blocking everyone but the backside defensive end; the quarterback "reads" him. If he crashes to take the runningback (or at least to eliminate the runningback’s cutback lane), the quarterback keeps it; if the defensive end is not in position to tackle the runner (either because he stays put or takes the quarterback, the QB simply hands the ball off to the runner.

Cam Newton and the Diversity of Carolina's Zone-Read Package - The Triangle Blog - Grantland
Newton is a one-of-kind offensive weapon, and his abilities to both be a threat to run the ball and make accurate run-game reads make everyone on the Panthers offense better, including his wide receivers. Steve Smith had Carolina’s biggest play of the day — a 66-yard catch in which no one on New Orleans's defense was within 20 yards of him. As Newton explained after the game, Smith was the direct beneficiary of Carolina's dynamic rushing attack: "Of all of the people on this field to be wide open, you would think Smitty would be the last person," Newton said. "But that is what type of pressure the zone read gives us."

Defending the Zone Read Option - Shakin The Southland
The typical strategy for defending the zone read is the scrape exchange between the backside End and the backside LB. The other is to have the End sit (to wait without attacking) and have the backside LB take the cutback lane from the RB, effectively making the play into the usual inside zone. I have seen Kevin Steele run both. You take the 2nd way when the QB is extremely dangerous, otherwise use the scrape exchange. Always make the less-talented runner keep the ball.

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