The Carolina Panthers are 2-0. Which means after a disappointing 2016 season they are back to their 2015, 15-1, NFC championship form right? Well, not really.
They were held out of the endzone on Sunday by the Buffalo Bills. They struggled to a win in San Francisco in Week 1. They still don’t look like the conquering force they were two years ago. Some of that could be down to Cam Newton’s shoulder still not being 100%, but whatever it is that’s going on with the Carolina offense, it’s not what we expected.
After the Draft we were promised a versatile juggernaut, run through Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel to drag defenses out of shape into all kinds of awkward matchups.
Instead, things look very much as they did last year. A lot outside throws, a lot of standard shotgun formations and runs. The matchup nightmare is in Kansas, not Carolina.
A big part of the Panthers offense over the years has been tight end Greg Olsen. He hasn’t missed a game since arriving in 2012, he saw 120+ targets and put up over 1,000 yards in each of the last three years. And on Sunday against Buffalo he broke a bone in his right foot and was soon placed on IR.
Olsen has been the over-the-middle target for Cam Newton from day one, and now for the first time he won’t be there. That would be a cause for concern for many teams, but for the Panthers it’s an opportunity.
In his two games so far, McCaffrey has 30 touches, 21 carries and nine catches (on 12 targets), but he has been split out wide very rarely, and he and Jonathan Stewart have been very separate for the most part.
Now, without the ability to have Olsen in their spread packages, the opportunity is there to start moving McCaffrey around.
If there was any doubt about his ability as a receiver in the NFL, his catch over Ramon Humber at the end of the third quarter should remove them. He ran a wheel out of the backfield and high-pointed the ball like he was Richard Sherman, and that was after twisting himself to face his own endzone. It wasn’t the catch of your average running back.
Exploiting the matchups
This catch from McCaffrey saw him isolated on a linebacker, and while Humber was semi-picked during the play he was never going to get to that ball before McCaffrey, and it's the same story any time he's out on a route or in the open field. He is basically unstoppable one on one, and while he can't exploit coverage in the same way Olsen did, he can still be a force in the middle of the field.
McCaffrey's college film is littered with examples of him running good routes and fooling defenders. Obviously not everything translates to an NFL level, but here he is selling a DB on a fake, here he is working on a linebacker in space.
This kind of thing is reminiscent of James White's performance in the Super Bowl, of Jarvis Landry in Miami, and distinctly what Carolina are lacking.
One thing noticeable from the tape of the Buffalo game is just how infrequently Stewart and McCaffrey are on the field at the same time. They were either side of Cam once in the gun, they ran a poor wildcat play, but that was about it. However, it doesn't have to be that way.
With Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess as the only really impressive pieces on the outside, leaving three eligible players to move around. Ed Dickson, Russell Shepard, and Curtis Samuel aren't all going to be on the field at once, leaving plenty of space for Stewart to sit in the backfield, and McCaffrey to be the knight on the chess board and move around to find space and play the matchups.
This offense needs to run through the unique talents it has. Through the threat of Cam's legs, through Benjamin's size, and through McCaffrey's pass-catching brilliance. All you need is a little vision, and Olsen's absence could, and should, put the Panthers in a position to create magic on offense.
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