Dec 16, 2012; San Diego, CA, USA; Carolina Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert (35) runs the ball while defended by San Diego Chargers strong safety Brandon Taylor (28) during the fourth quarter at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

2013 Carolina Panthers: Ground and Pound Could be the Future

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Now that the 2013 NFL draft has finished and we know the make-up of the team, undrafted free agent signings notwithstanding, we have a better picture of what all 32 teams might look like.

For instance, the KC Chiefs will likely have a West Coast offense with lots of short passing with some jitterbug runs from Jamaal Charles or him catching swing passes from Alex Smith. The Miami Dolphins look to be a more wide-open offense with young gun Ryan Tannehill now surrounded by some powerful weapons at the WR and TE positions – not to mention their defensive overhaul.

The 2013 iteration of the Carolina Panthers looks a lot like many teams from the 1970’s. Speaking of the Miami Dolphins, recall a young Don Shula taking the expansion Miami Dolphins to relevance with an unselfish team-first, “no-name” defense, a slick and thus aptly-named QB in Bob Griese, and a 3-headed hydra backfield with Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, and Mercury Morris. Don’t forget one of my all-time favorite players, Hall of Fame wideout Paul Warfield. One year, he had only 29 receptions for the heavily-grounded offense, but 11 of those went the distance.

Not to bad when 1 catch out of 3 means 6 (points)!

In their 1972 perfect season, what’s usually lost in the hype was that they were #1 in offense AND defense in the NFL. OUCH.

Dec 30, 2012; New Orleans, LA, USA; Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams (34) carries the ball up the field against the New Orleans Saints during first quarter of their game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

While I make no such grandiose predictions of the same for this year’s Carolina Panthers, I DO see some similarities.

Mainly, I see a team with one dangerous WR, Steve Smith, and a lot of role-players otherwise on the offense.

The Dolphins had a TE named Marlin Briscoe. The Panthers have a similar-type player in TE Greg Olson.

The offensive backfield is similar. Shula had Csonka; Rivera has Jonathan Stewart. Shula had Jim Kiick – sort of a jack-of-all-trades – and the Panthers have Mike Tolbert. Shula’s most electrifying player was a speedster with a great nickname….Eugene “Mercury” Morris. Rivera now has 2 of those – DeAngelo Williams and 6th-round draft pick, the rookie from Oregon, Kenjon Barner.

Neither of them have cool nicknames, but hey, it’s the play on the field I’m comparing.

With limited help in the passing game, the Panthers have another threat that the Dolphins really didn’t have – a true dual-threat QB. Bob Griese was slippery and could scramble but was a physically small man, even for the times, and wasn’t about to take many hits. Cam Newton is much, much more dynamic.

When Ron Rivera took the team over, the Panthers were already built very much like a power running team. They just lacked the defense against the run to fully exploit it.

Now, with two strong young and talented defensive tackles, the Panthers’ 2012 “soft, gushy center” of the defense won’t be so soft in 2013. Luke Kuechly led the NFL in tackles and has already made his presence known, but now he’s got some help in front of him so he might not make quite as many tackles, frankly….the hopes are the defense won’t be on the field so much this year.

That’s exactly where a power running game helps – it keeps opposing QBs like, oh, say…Drew Brees and Matt Ryan on the bench where they can’t hurt you. If the Panthers can dictate the pace of a ball game, they are going to have a very good shot to win.

If everyone on the offensive line is healthy, it should be one of the better overall units in the NFL – Byron Bell or not. Bell’s a better run-blocker than he is a pass protector so a running offense would benefit him as well.

Also if you’ll recall the first two games last year – the Panthers ran 2-to-1 vs. passing and won that game against the Saints. The other? They passed 2-to-1 vs. running (season opener @ Tampa Bay) and lost. Those first two games should have set the tone for the offensive play-calling the rest of the season, but Chud wasn’t always on top of the running game.

Jan 23, 2013; Mobile AL, USA; Senior Bowl north squad running back Kenjon Barner of Oregon (24) carries against defensive back Jordan Poyer of Oregon State (14) during the Senior Bowl north squad practice at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

If the Panthers decide to go the “ground and pound” route, they could be a force to reckon with. Today’s NFL defenses are built around the pass rush and pass defense, team speed and smaller, faster defenders. These things go in cycles, and we’re at one extreme now more or less because of the liberal rules in the passing game. Fine.

The advantage can go to Carolina when pounding the rock with any of 4 different ball carriers when you include Cam Newton…possibly 5 if Barner is tossed into the mix for a few plays a game early on as he learns the ropes.

The personnel should dictate what you do, not the other way around. You play to your strengths, and I’d say Carolina’s backfield is much stronger than the receiving corps is. They’re also taking up the lion’s share of salary cap space.

USE THEM!

A powerful running game does a number of good things. It runs the clock, shortening the game. It really does make opposing defenses a step slower as the game wears on as the physicality wears them out. It’s no secret it takes twice as much energy to play defense than offense, and when an offense can put together long, slogging drives, the defense gets tired.

A tired defense helps the opposing offense down the stretch as they’re less able to make plays and just get worn down. Also, a lot of defensive backs these days are used to covering and not tackling; tackling is almost a lost art these days, and bringing down a Mike Tolbert is NOT something a 190-lb DB wants to do – or even CAN do in some cases.

As running teams keep running and the game goes on, the gains on the ground tend to get a little bigger. When you have a mix of power sledgehammers and lightning bugs, those fast guys seem to get a little bit faster in the 2nd half…and the Panthers have been known the past 2 years for giving up leads (when they get them) late in the game.

I say it’s worth attempting. A strong running game would make the vertical passing game MORE effective – even if pass attempts are going to be down – as safeties start sneaking towards the line of scrimmage or defensive coordinators start calling “8 in the box” defenses to try and stop/slow down the run. That’s where the play-action deep pass comes in.

With nobody (yet) stepping up in the WR corps, signs point more and more to a 1970’s-style extremely physical offensive style being the direction to go. Smitty has lost at least a step in speed and nobody so far has stepped up to claim the WR2 spot, so they may go with what’s proven.

The Panthers have so much money and talent in the offensive backfield – it’s time they started earning those big paychecks.

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