To field a legitimate contender in today's NFL, a head coach must first focus on building a team capable of competing with the heavyweights in the division.
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera understands this premise, which is why he promoted former quarterbacks coach Mike Shula to offensive coordinator, to build on the foundation laid down by Rob Chudzinski during his time with the team. While Shula has promised to retain the playbook and most of the philosophies of his predecessor, he undoubtedly will tweak some things in looking to make the unit a viable contender in the division.
Here are three keys:
1) Cam Newton must take it to another level
Newton set an NFL record for most passing yards in a player's first two seasons (7,920 yards), surpassing Peyton Manning's previous mark despite 106 fewer pass attempts. Yet, based on his 13-19 mark as a starter, the third-year pro needs to take another step in his development. New general manager Dave Gettleman recently raised some eyebrows with a mixed assessment of Newton's young career. Clearly, team officials expect more from the 2011 NFL Draft's No. 1 overall pick, given his immense talent and potential as an athletic playmaker.
Newton must build upon the momentum created down the stretch last season, when he led Carolina to five wins in the team's final six games. During that span, Newton dazzled as a passer by patiently picking apart defenses intent on taking away the deep ball. He relentlessly worked the short-to-intermediate areas of the field with zip throws inside and outside of the numbers. Additionally, Newton displayed exceptional poise in the pocket against blitz pressure or traditional coverage. As a result, he avoided the critical turnovers that fueled the Panthers' 1-6 start.
Part of Newton's success in November/December can be attributed to a simplification of the offensive attack. The Panthers enjoyed great success by mixing conventional formations, running plays and vertical throws with some of the zone-read concepts Newton used at Auburn. The offense operated at a faster tempo, and improved rhythm resulted in better play from the quarterback.
Looking at the Panthers' final seven games -- in which they posted a 5-2 mark -- it is interesting to note that Newton averaged 9.1 rushing attempts for 55.3 yards per outing. Those numbers represent an increase over his prior career averages (7.6 carries for 42.4 yards), suggesting that Newton's impact as a runner pays significant dividends for Carolina's offense. The Panthers should continue to employ the quarterback running game, particularly in zone-read concepts. With Newton rushing for over 500 yards in each of his first two seasons and totalling 22 rushing touchdowns -- both unparralleled feats among NFL quarterbacks -- defensive coordinators have been forced to revamp their game plans against the Panthers' read option, leading to big-play opportunities on the ground and through the air.
Carolina obviously wants to do everything it can to protect its franchise signal-caller, but Shula must be careful not to stifle the offense's most dangerous weapon. That said ...
2) Carolina must commit to pounding the rock
Extensive use of the zone read caused Newton to rack up a team-high 741 rushing yards, but the Panthers failed to establish a conventional ground attack, despite boasting three talented running backs (DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert). While it's definitely challenging to defend an athletic quarterback with running skills, the Panthers shouldn't rely on Newton to pace the running game. This shouldn't be the case with Shula in charge of the offense.
The 21-year NFL coaching veteran still will utilize Newton as a running threat in the zone read, but he would like the running backs to carry load on more traditional runs. That means Williams and Stewart will receive the bulk of the work between the 20s, with Tolbert getting touches in red-zone/goal-line situations. Divvying up carries between multiple runners is not an easy task, but Shula is experienced in the area, having served as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offensive coordinator with Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott in the same backfield. Here is how each guy could thrive in Shula's system:
Skeptics wonder if the 30-year-old runner still has juice after seven NFL seasons, but Williams finished second on the team with 737 rush yards last season, while producing five runs of 20-plus yards. Most impressively, he displayed the kind of pitter-pat and burst that allowed him to slip past defenders in the hole and turn negative plays into big gainers on the perimeter. To take advantage of Williams' skills, Shula will feature more stretch, outside-zone and counter plays to get the shifty back loose on the perimeter. When given opportunities to hit the corner, Williams has consistently produced big plays -- like the one shown in the video clip just above.
Stewart is the designated sledgehammer in the Panthers' offense. He excels at punishing defenders in the hole, yet flashes enough quickness and burst to make nifty cuts in traffic. The combination of finesse and power makes him a tough runner bring down, especially when the Panthers are using him on a series of downhill runs from one- and two-back formations. Of course, injuries limited Stewart's production last season, and he's currently on the PUP list while recovering from ankle surgery. When healthy, Stewart showcases the strength and physicality coaches covet in power runners. That's why Carolina look to give Stewart the ball on traditional power plays between the tackles or inside-zone runs -- like the one shown in the video clip just above. These runs allow the running back to keep his shoulders square to the line, while also providing cutback lanes at the point of attack. Once Stewart returns to action, Shula should use the sixth-year pro frequently on inside runs to soften up the defense.
The fullback is on the verge of extinction in the NFL, but Tolbert is one of the best all-around threats at the position. He is a physical blocker who also shines as a runner and receiver. Most importantly, Tolbert is a short-yardage/goal-line specialist. He has scored 26 rushing touchdowns over the last three seasons, including seven in 2012. He could remain on the field on passing downs to give Newton a dependable blocker/receiver in the backfield. Last season, he excelled in that role (27 receptions for 268 yards), and his effectiveness on screens should prompt Shula to make him a vital part of the game plan this fall.
3) Find creative ways to involve Steve Smith
Smith remains the Panthers' top option in the passing attack, despite having 12 NFL seasons under his belt. While the veteran hasn't shown signs of slowing down -- coming off a second consecutive 1,000-yard season -- he's not getting any younger. And without a legitimate threat on the opposite side of the field, he'll continue to face constant double teams. Therefore, Shula will need to be creative with Smith's deployment, to create big-play opportunities against defenses designed to contain him on the outside.
Here are a few options:
On the outside
Smith traditionally aligns at split end (X receiver) on the backside of the formation. This keeps him away from the strong safety when opponents run Cover 3 to pit an eight-man box against the Panthers' two-back sets, which leads to some one-on-one opportunities on the outside. Sometimes, though, defenses will run Cover 6, putting a free safety in the flat on Smith's side, as detailed in this screengrab:
But the veteran is such a good route runner, particularly on out-breaking patterns, that the defense has no chance of containing him in these situations.
In the slot
The Panthers have rarely featured Smith in the slot, despite the numerous advantages created by the alignment. By putting the veteran on the inside, Shula can put Smith in motion to make it challenging for the defense to use brackets and double coverage on the Panthers' No. 1 option. The team could also use switch routes to create rubs or picks for Smith against man coverage, as diagrammed in this screen grab:
Offensive coordinators frequently use an assortment of bunch or stack formations to create mismatches in the passing game. The cluster alignment prevents double teams, while also leading to possible picks by receivers crossing at various levels. Therefore, Smith's deployment in the formation becomes problematic for opponents. By motioning in or out of the formation and being featured on a number of pick routes, including the one illustrated in the screengrab below, Smith becomes more difficult to defend.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.