Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newon was heavily criticized coming out of the University of Auburn because of his lack of experience in a pro-style system and his penchant for scrambling out of the pocket too often. The biggest critics said he would be unable to pick up an NFL offense and would have to become a pocket passer. Fast forward six months: Newton has quieted his critics with his phenomenal talent and impressive passing performances week in and week out. Newton has also continued to run away from would-be tacklers. The reason for this is Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski has called several designed running plays for his quarterback in an effort to take advantage of the mobility Newton possesses.
Chudzinksi installed a popular zone run concept from the college game, known as the Zone Read. The Zone Read, made popular by former West Virginia and Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez, is not something new in the NFL. Tyler Thigpen and Alex Smith have run it in recent seasons. However, neither of those players were as valuable to their franchises at that time as Newton is to the Panthers right now.
On the Zone Read play, the Panthers come out in 11 personnel in a Spread formation. When they did this Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings defense went to their 40 nickel package, which is four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs. As can be seen below, the Vikings are playing six defenders in the box to counter five blockers. However, as Rodriguez noted, the dual-threat ability of the quarterback makes him an additional blocker. Newton’s dual-threat abilities puts the Vikings at a disadvantage because there are six blockers against six Viking defenders, and the offense knows where it wants to go.
At the snap of the ball, the offensive line zone blocked away from the read and left the backside defensive end, Jared Allen in this case, unblocked.
Newton’s read on this play is the backside defensive end that is left unblocked. Newton puts the ball in the belly of the running back and reads Allen. If Allen crashes down the line of scrimmage to pursue after the running back, Newton pulls it back and runs with it to the left. If Allen plays contain and looks to tackle Newton, he hands it off to the running back for the sweep across the formation.
Allen ends up hesitating on the read, which allows Newton to get leverage outside, so he pulls it out of the running back’s belly and runs it himself. What was key on this run was the blocking of the wide receiver. The play was ran to the single receiver side, where Steve Smith (89) ended up blocking not just one, but two Viking defenders. He does a good job of getting inside of the cornerback’s chest to block him before releasing onto the safety for a second block.
Option football is rarely seen in the NFL because of the amount of money invested in the quarterback position, but every now and then, play callers will go to it because of how effective it can be. It puts defenders in a bind when they are forced to choose between two offensive threats, much like a two-man passing concept that has been discussed multiple times here. Play callers such as Bruce Arians of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Chan Gailey when he was in Kansas City, Andy Reid of the Philadelphia Eagles, Jim Harbaugh of the San Francisco 49ers and Rob Chudzinski of the Carolina Panthers have used it more and more to utilize the scrambling ability of their quarterbacks. As a fan of the game, I am pleased to see the option in the NFL, as it is very effective because it forces defenders to play assignment football and stay disciplined.