How to Beat the Panthers? Stop the Run

"Cam Newton makes everything go - everything runs through him," fullback Mike Tolbert recently said, speaking of the offense in general. You can't argue with an honest statement from one of the cogs participating in it. Cam is the reason that everyone is stepping up with the absence of Kelvin Benjamin in the WR group, and as many recently have noted, the result is that Cam has been in all the conversations about the projected MVP.

There's good reason for that. The offense is scoring 30 points per game (3rd in the NFL) and has gotten better as the season has progressed. I, too, have noted the unique nature of and difficulty in preparing for the Carolina Panthers offense in more than one recent article. So I got to would an opponent have a chance at beating this team if the undefeated team is playing well?

Stop the Run

It's a very old refrain, but in this case it's actually doubly true. The Panthers are the only team in the NFL that runs more than it passes. The team has been built from the inside-out to be a power running team and a punishing one at that.

Newton goes close to 250 lbs. Stewie's a hoss at 240+. Tolbert is a bowling ball at about 260. There are no "change of pace" guys - just hammers and, well, bowling balls. But then, there's Cam. More on him later.

The offensive line is anchored by an All-Pro center and a Pro Bowl caliber nasty right guard in Trai Turner. Andrew Norwell has been good when he's healthy, but Amini Silatolu is a capable backup. Both tackles are good run-blockers, and promising rookie Daryl Williams should be coming back online any week now from injury. RT Mike Remmers had a rough game in New Orleans last week, making Dave Gettleman's drafting of Williams seem prescient.

This team is as big and punishing a group as any you'll find on the offensive side of the football. It's why they run as much as they do, and why they tend to wear down opponents in the second half. You might see forty rushing yards in the first half, then another hundred in the second. That's the plan, anyhow.

Cam Newton is the key to this, and his growth as a QB from last year has him outwitting opponents with his cadence alone. He loves using it to draw 5-yard penalties from making the defense jump and turns and gives his patented 1.21 gigawatt smile to his sideline when he does. He runs designed runs, the read/option, the option/read, you name it, he does it. That's the beauty of this rushing attack - both in its power and diversity of ground weapons.

Redefining Physics - but How?

Stopping the Panthers running attack is marginally easier than the heading here suggests. The idea would be a bit obvious - taking a multi-score early lead. Okay, fine; check out the defense. Good luck with that. Besides, it wouldn't necessarily force Carolina exclusively to the air that early anyway. It's likely they wouldn't, but it would shrink the playbook considerably.

Otherwise, you just have to get in there and stuff the run. That's what the passing game is largely predicated upon and a major pillar of the offense -- the play-action pass. Seriously, how does a defense stop such a diverse and uniquely-styled offense?

It's hard to simulate the talents of a guy like Cam Newton in practice. you can scheme for his style of play, but actually stopping it is not something anyone can have confidence with going into a game against him. The hope is to slow him down enough to outscore him while facing one of the NFL's finest defenses with multiple superstar talents on the roster.

Since the Panthers' game is power running, a defense would have to stack the inside and try to just plain deny the middle of the defense to them, and have the people with which to do it. It'll take a very good front-seven with a couple of different particularly disruptive players...perhaps like Denver, but unless they reach the Super Bowl themselves, they won't be an issue. File that one away, folks.

If the defense stacks the middle and stays in a "defend the run first" mentality, that's where the Panthers bring in the play-action passing and random deep throws. Sometimes they actually connect with speedsters Philly Brown and Ted Ginn, Jr. Once in a while, one's dropped, but Cam and the receiver reconnect to help confidence. That's part of Cam's growth and the offensive growth on this team. They are forced to depend on each other even more without having Kelvin Benjamin's talents on the field.

If by some miracle, the other team does manage to render the Carolina rushing attack ineffective, things will come down to the objective - making Cam win the game in the air. It isn't a secret that the Panthers have quite an unheralded WR corps, but they've gotten production out of Ginn where no other team has been able to do so. Certainly, Cam has gotten some chemistry with him and with Philly Brown, both. It appears that rookie Devin Funchess is catching on and not pressing so much like he was in the first third of the season, but so did Jerry Rice. It takes time to take it all in once you arrive as a rookie and just settle down.

It only means he'll be more and more dangerous going forward. 

Newton showed his ability to put the team on his shoulders by winning a shootout in New Orleans last week, 41-38, tossing 8 or 9 TD passes to get five to count. Ginn had really "only" one Drop-Six while the second apparent one was actually the result of defensive holding, which was called on that play. The defender got Ginn just enough off-balance for a moment to slow him down; it messed up the timing and Ginn would have been at least in better position to drop the thing. On one TD drive - heck, in one set of downs - Newton had to throw THREE TD passes for the 3rd one to actually count - a drop and an offensive holding penalty forced him to do so.

I can't say that the Panthers can't be stopped, but keeping the running game in check is a given. However, that would mean putting a "spy" on Cam on defense, which just opens the passing game up more. It's really a question of "pick your poison," and so far the Carolina Panthers have been giving opponents steady doses of Hemlock.

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