As we’ve been doing for several years now, we’ll break down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ opponent each week, telling you what to expect from a scheme and individual standpoint. Like last year, Josh Carney and I will cover the opposing team’s defense. I will focus on the scheme, Josh on the players.
Today, scouting the Carolina Panthers’ offense.
ALEX’S SCHEME REPORT
PANTHERS RUN GAME
A very old-school team finding an identity. Look out, the Panthers are a downhill running machine putting up over 200 yards in last weekend’s upset road win against the Seattle Seahawks. As a team, the Panthers are averaging 4.5 YPC, slightly above-average league-wide but they’re committed to it. Despite having a losing record, their 361 rushing attempts are 12th in football and some teams are ahead of them because of their QB mobility, teams like the Bears and Eagles.
In the first half of games where the game script is less of a factor, the Panthers’ 184 rush attempts are tied for 7th-most in football (for the record, the Steelers are 4th). They haven’t been an explosive rushing team though, looking for consistency instead of the big play with 36 runs of 10+ yards, tied 18th overall and even lower relative to how much they run the football.
With Christian McCaffrey traded to San Francisco, Chuba Hubbard and D’Onta Foreman have taken lead roles in the backfield. In Sunday’s win, Foreman led the way with 47% of the offensive snaps while Hubbard had 32% and little-known Raheem Blackshear picked up the other 19%. Receivers get involved too with D.J. Moore (nine attempts) and RB/WR Laviska Shenault (seven attempts). On the year, Foreman has 147 carries and four touchdowns while Hubbard has 55 carries and two touchdowns. Foreman has a 4.3 YPC, Hubbard a 4.5.
Carolina goes as heavy as anyone. They have their “Arby’s” package with up to eight offensive linemen and traditionally play with six. The last two weeks, they’ve opened up in I-Form with #64, rookie guard/tackle Cade Mays, working as a fullback. They’ll run Lead Weak/Strong or boundary tosses with him. #75, veteran Cameron Erving, is often used as an in-line 6th offensive lineman.
TE Ian Thomas is also a big boy at 260 pounds so there’s plenty of beef to go around.
They are a downhill, power-running team that doesn’t get too fancy. They will run gap/power and they run in all situations, including third and long. The Panthers have 15 runs on 3rd and 7+ this season, one of the top figures in the league, especially excluding the mobile-QB teams.
They run plenty of packaged plays and RPOs. One of their favorites is a power + bubble to #3 in the flat. A couple of examples of that which they’ll run on any down.
There’s also a 49ers-based Zorro toss with a TE in motion running across the formation with a toss to the back on the snap. Stuff you see from the Shanahan tree down out west and in Miami under new head coach Mike McDaniel.
Some other offensive stats. They’re averaging just 20 points per game, 24th in football. Their offense has been better as of late. They failed to score 21+ points in five of their first six games. But they’ve scored 21+ points in six of their last seven thanks to interim head coach Steve Wilks. So the offense has improved. They have an abysmal third-down offense, 30th in football at just 28.7% (they’re a league-worst 11.8% on 3rd and 7+ when they can’t run the ball) while their red zone offense is below average at 52.9% (18th). They’ve only turned the ball over 15 times this year, around league average which is the same for their turnover differential of -2.
Last note is to watch out for punter Johnny Hekker. He’s yet to throw a pass this season but he was one of the NFL’s best when he was with the Rams. 23 career passes since entering the league in 2012. The next closest punter over that span is Sam Koch’s seven and Riley Dixon is the only other one with at least five. Late in the season, I can see the Panthers checking or calling it if they get the right look. He’s also punting the heck out of the ball with a career-high 48.9 yards per punt so he’s helping their field position battle, crucial to their success as a middling offense.
PANTHERS PASSING OFFENSE
Third time’s the charm. Sam Darnold is the team’s starter, the third of the season behind Baker Mayfield and P.J. Walker. In his two starts, he’s gone 25/43 with two touchdowns but most importantly zero interceptions and generally has helped move this offense down the field. Don’t overlook this team. They needed a steady vet presence and he’s provided it.
D.J. Moore is their leading receiver though the numbers aren’t pretty. 46 receptions, 605 yards and four touchdowns. Their next leading receiver is McCaffrey, who has been out west for weeks now, while Laviska Shenault is their second “leading” receiver with just 21 receptions and under 200 yards. WR Terrance Marshall has been a deep and big-play threat averaging nearly 19 yards per catch but aside from Moore, there’s no other consistent presence in this offense. They play a lot of people and personnel and rely on scheme more than talent. As a team, they have 35 completions of 20+ yards, tied-21st in football.
As a team, they’ve thrown just 11 passing touchdowns this year. Only the Steelers’ nine are worse/lower. They’re also completing 58.3% of their passes, 31st in football, and Darnold’s number in two starts is right in line with that.
Conceptually, there are plenty of constraint plays. They love running boots to the field which becomes a three-level concept, essentially Spider 2 Y Banana. A flat receiver, a bender from the backside #2 to the boot side, and a corner route. Here’s a bunch of examples. Flat is often the #1 read, it’s low to high, but Darnold can work the progression and hit the deeper routes, too. Often set up with a couple of early runs followed by the boot. Look for it on 1st and 10 and 3rd and short.
Beyond that and their RPO game with bubbles and screens and flares, their pass game is really conservative. Some level/dagger concepts but nothing that trends all too often. They play it safe, want to take care of the ball, and like to keep it on the ground.
Josh’s Individual Report
It’s Panthers week, Steelers fans!
Sitting at 5-8 on the season, the Steelers get to escape the dreary Pittsburgh weather for the sunny skies and warm temperatures of Charlotte for a matchup with the 5-8 Panthers.
Much like the Steelers, Carolina has had a bit of a quarterback carousel under center this season with the likes of Baker Mayfield, P.J. Walker and Sam Darnold starting games. With Mayfield now a Los Angeles Ram, Darnold is the one running the show for interim head coach Steve Wilks.
The last few weeks he’s done a good job of being a smart game manager for an offense that has bludgeoned people on the ground. When called upon though, Darnold has been safe and smart with the football.
In recent weeks the Panthers have leaned heavily on moving the pocket and getting Darnold out on the move on designed rollouts, cutting the field in half with layered routes to let him pick which window to throw into.
So far, he’s had some success.
The Panthers aren’t asking him to do much right now, which seems to be a very solid recipe overall for Carolina. A lot of his work is coming off of play-action, quick throws, rollouts and screens, which is keeping the ball out of harm’s way overall.
He’s added an element with his legs too, something the Panthers haven’t had since the middle of the season when Walker was under center.
Darnold won’t take off often, but when he does he has the speed and athleticism to pick up a chunk of yardage.
Make no mistake though: this Panthers offense goes through the ground game.
After trading Christian McCaffrey to the San Francisco 49ers, D’Onta Foreman, Chuba Hubbard and Raheem Blackshear have emerged for Carolina as runners.
Foreman has provided serious muscle to the Carolina attack. He’s the workhorse, the guy that can wear down opponents between the tackles.
He’s not a burner, but he has a good initial burst and runs hard behind his pads. He’ll be a handful on Sunday for a Steelers run defense that has struggled in recent weeks.
Behind Foreman, Hubbard and Blackshear provide the explosiveness. Hubbard was a track star in high school and college, while Blackshear was a home run threat in college and has emerged in recent weeks as a big-play guy through the air and on the ground.
Last week in Seattle, Hubbard was the best runner of the bunch for the Panthers, thriving in their gap scheme.
When he’s healthy and rolling, he’s a solid No. 2 running back for the Panthers. He has the speed to rip off explosive plays and has really solid vision overall, especially in Carolina’s system to pick through the garbage.
Outside of the strong running game, there’s not much there for the Panthers in the passing game.
DJ Moore is a great receiver, but he’s been handcuffed by the quarterback issues the last two seasons in Carolina. He’s a dynamic route runner, has great hands and can really stretch a defense vertically, but he’s not getting the usage he should be as a true No. 1.
Terrance Marshall Jr. has tapped into his potential and is starting to emerge as a reliable receiver in the NFL. He’s a sound route runner with great hands. I loved the way he stacked Marcus Peters here in the matchup a few weeks ago, getting Peters to open up to the boundary, allowing Marshall to release back inside for the seam shot from Mayfield.
The Panthers acquired Laviska Shenault Jr. before the start of the season and have struggled to find a true role for him. He’s served as an offensive weapon overall for the Panthers, one that can run the football, catch the football and move all over the formation. They’re just struggling to scheme up space for him.
They like to run the rocket or orbit motion for him. They ran it three times against Seattle last week. He loves to dish out punishment at the end of each run, too.
Tight ends Ian Thomas and Tommy Tremble are solid blockers overall and thrive in the run game, but they’re mostly relegated to routes into the flat as checkdown options in the passing game at the moment.
Up front along the offensive line, the group is playing rather well in the running game but has had its issues in pass protection.
Here’s how I expect them to line up on Sunday, left to right:
LT — Ikem Ekwonu
LG — Brady Christensen
C — Bradley Bozeman
RG — Austin Corbett
RT — Taylor Moton
On paper, it’s a really good group. The tackles in Ekwonu and Moton look like stalwarts for years to come. They’re great athletes in pass protection and can really move the pile in the run game.
Inside, I was high on Christensen coming out of BYU two years ago. Though he has short arms, he is a great athlete with great technique. He’s still adjusting to the switch to guard though, which has shown up at times on tape.
Corbett was the Panthers’ big signing in the trenches this offseason and he’s really struggled, while Bozeman provided serious stability and physicality at center.
The Panthers will roll out an “Arby’s” package with seven or eight offensive linemen at times, so guys like Cam Erving and Cade Mays will see the field in the run game.
On special teams, kicker Eddie Pinero has really grabbed hold of the job and run with it. On the year he’s 25-of-27. He’s as consistent as they come right now in the NFL. He’s kept the Panthers in some games this season due to his leg.
Punter Johnny Hekker remains one of the best in the business. It was startling to see the Rams let him get away, and he’s making them pay for it. On the year, Hekker is averaging 48.92 yards per punt on 63 punts. He has a long of 68 on the season and has downed 29 inside the 20-yard line.
He’s a great situational punter overall and a serious weapon in the field position battle. He’s even a threat to throw and run on fake punts, so keep an eye on him.
Blackshear is the return man for Carolina. He has serious speed and is getting close to popping one. Wide receiver Shi Smith is the punt returner. He had a fumble last week in Seattle and has made some shaky decisions overall on punt returns.