By Nick Shook
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The Chicago Bears defeated the Carolina Panthers last week despite throwing the ball just seven times. Chicago’s two touchdowns both came via defensive scores. Cam Newton led the Panthers in rushing with 50 yards on nine attempts.
It was that kind of Sunday for the Panthers.
Once a run-first team, Carolina has struggled to run the ball in 2017, ranking T-21st in the NFL with an average of 97.3 yards per game. The Panthers exceeded that number on Sunday, but on an average of just 3.6 yards per carry.
As a result, we decided to examine the Week 7 game to attempt to find out what’s wrong with the offense.
A lot of Carolina’s early struggles on the ground against Chicago were due to self-inflicted wounds. On an early zone stretch play, left tackle Matt Kalil appeared in position to achieve a seal on his chosen defender, but was stepped on by left guard Andrew Norwell. Kalil tumbled to the ground as a result, which ruined the zone effort and the play got blown up.
(This seemed to be a frequent issue with zone plays for the Panthers. They would benefit from widening its splits.)
On another play in the first quarter, Carolina runs a zone stretch to the right, and it gets almost inexplicably clogged up. Scanning the blocking left-to-right, everything seems fine, until one reaches the play-side tight end, Chris Manhertz.
Manhertz, just past his one-year anniversary of the Panthers claiming him off waivers, steps in the opposite direction of his teammates and of the play, slamming into right tackle Daryl Williams. By the time he realizes he’s misinterpreted the play call, it’s too late. The front side of the run becomes a jumbled mess — much like Carolina’s efforts on the ground as of late.
Next up is Devin Funchess, whose lackadaisical block on Bryce Callahan allows the corner to dive and grab McCaffrey, slowing him enough for his running lane to close up on him before he could hit it.
That one might be the most frustrating, because it’s a microcosm of why Carolina is struggling on the ground. Ten guys can get it right, but rarely can all 11.
It’s also frustrating to watch because this offense has the talent to be successful on the ground. There aren’t glaring holes on the line, just a lack of collective execution. The group’s potential is clear when it works, such as the very next play.
Carolina puts it all together, executing down blocks, double teams, a pull (a good one from Norwell on Christian Jones) and a lead that fullback Alex Armah turns into an excellent kick-out on Leonard Floyd. Even Ed Dickson and William got to the second level, clearing out linebacker Danny Trevathan and giving Jonathan Stewart room to run.
The Panthers tried something similar on the next play and saw it stopped by a good fill from Jones and a defense with nine of 11 players near or in the box. But on the very next rushing attempt, Carolina executed well again, running a counter trey to near perfection.
So what’s the deal with the Panthers‘ running game, which has disappointed statistically, despite these examples of its capability? On Sunday, the Panthers didn’t help themselves with turnovers. The first — a fumble returned 75 yards by Eddie Jackson for a touchdown — came as a result of a botched option pitch between Cam Newton and rookie Curtis Samuel, but was actually blocked well by the rest of the offense. The turnovers forced Carolina to shift into come-from-behind mode, which has rarely worked for the team in the last year and a half. It failed Sunday.
The Panthers also struggle to make the blocks that separate three-yard runs from 15-plus-yard runs, meaning they don’t often make it to the second level. This leaves linebackers free to fill holes, which can cut a rushing attack at its knees as it’s just getting started.
Carolina doesn’t block very well in the open field either, as evidenced by this, which should have gone for at least 10 yards if either Funchess or Dickson provided even half of a block each.
The most alarming problem for Carolina’s group is a lack of surge off the snap, which is typically indicative of a doomed line. In Week 7, the average yards gained before a defender closed in within 1 yard for Carolina running backs was -0.2 yards, or 0.2 yards into the backfield, per Next Gen Stats. On the season, Carolina is second-worst in the league in that category, averaging -0.28 yards gained before close. That area usually comes down to size, power and desire. Rarely have the Panthers won that battle in 2017.
Credit is also due to Chicago’s front seven, which was disciplined in the gap integrity and leverage areas for much of the game. Fairly often, Carolina would execute a play well between the tackles but just see every lane filled by a defender who followed his run fit. The Bears aren’t 11th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game by mistake.
Most of these issues can be fixed and fine-tuned over the course of a season, and when it works, it does work rather well. It just needs to start to turn around soon, so that Newton isn’t forced to attempt to throw the Panthers back into the game. Most importantly, Carolina needs to place a greater emphasis on consistently blowing its opponent off the ball and chipping to second level.
Oh, and Funchess really needs to improve his blocking on every level of the field. Carolina needs him to at least fully engage defenders more often than not. Too often, he was more like this in Week 7:
That’s simply not good enough, especially on a team that is trying to win a division title.