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Scouting Report, Week 15: The Carolina Panthers, Ra's al Ghul and the art of deception

The Carolina Panthers expertly deceive their opponents and understand that invisibility is a matter of patience and agility. [NFL and Warner Bros.]
The Carolina Panthers expertly deceive their opponents and understand that invisibility is a matter of patience and agility. [NFL and Warner Bros.]
Published Dec. 11, 2014

It wasn't quite the same as Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski or Drew Brees to Jimmy Graham, but Derek Anderson to Greg Olsen was something we saw a lot of during Week 1. And when the Buccaneers visit the Carolina Panthers this Sunday, we'll see even more.

Because Cam Newton suffered fractures in his back as a result of a car crash Tuesday, the Panthers turn once again to backup Anderson, who in his last start, a 20-14 win in the season opener against the Buccaneers, completed 24 of 34 passes for 230 yards and two touchdowns. Before that Sept. 7 game, he had thrown only four passes in three seasons.

Aside from a few deep shots to rookie Kelvin Benjamin, including a 26-yard touchdown pass, most of Anderson's throws were quick and short and many came off of run fakes. Olsen saw a team-high 11 targets, catching eight for 83 yards and a touchdown. He has continued to be a factor in the offense and ranks third among tight ends this season in targets (104; Gronkowski is first with 117) and second in receiving yards (850; Gronkowski is first with 997).

This week I sat down with former NFL tight end Todd Yoder, who played nine seasons with Tampa Bay (2000-2003), Jacksonville (2004) and Washington (2006-2009), to examine how the Panthers use Olsen and how the Buccaneers might try to stop him this time around. Yoder just finished his second year as head coach at Calvary Christian High School in Clearwater, leading the Warriors to their first playoff appearance.

• • •

When the Buccaneers and Panthers first met, Carolina did not significantly alter the look of its offense. The Panthers committed to the run, attacked the defense with a heavy dose of play action and even had Anderson occasionally roll out of the pocket.

The Panthers were especially effective with the play action, as Anderson completed nine of 13 such passes for 79 yards and both of his touchdowns. Let's take a look at his first touchdown pass, which goes to Olsen, on 2nd-and-goal about halfway through the second quarter.

The Panthers come to the line in 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends and two receivers) and in the shotgun formation. Each tight end is lined up on the outside of the offensive line (Olsen is on the left). The Buccaneers counter with the Cover 2, a zone coverage with two safeties deep.

The Panthers fake the handoff inside while Olsen runs straight to the end zone. The linebackers bite on the fake, and once they start pursuing the run, they open a window for Anderson, who hits Olsen on a simple pop pass for an easy touchdown.

Linebacker Jonathan Casillas (traded Oct. 28 to the New England Patriots) is lined up over Olsen and is likely responsible for jamming him, Yoder says, but gets sucked up by the play-action.

"If you look at his eyes," he says, "he's got his eyes in the backfield. As soon as he gets his eyes in the backfield, then he doesn't reroute (Olsen), and he's just going to go right by him."

Four weeks later against the Chicago Bears, the Panthers execute a similar play for a game-winning touchdown. This time, it's 3rd-and-goal with about two minutes remaining. Before, the Panthers had a second receiver lined up to the far right, but here, they replace him with a third tight end, who sets on the right side of the offensive line. The Bears are in man coverage and send linebacker Christian Jones on a blitz off the edge.

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That blitz allows Olsen to get a clean release and match up one-on-one with the safety. Like the Buccaneers, the Bears are caught offguard by the run fake inside and give Newton a throwing lane.

Olsen is already open but gains additional separation with a little shimmy that tricks the safety into thinking that he's going to run left.

"That little dip that he did is what freezes the safety into thinking that it's a corner route, and then — boom — right back inside to the post," Yoder says. "That's just a tight end stemming his route, makes a little fake and it flat foots the safety. And then it's easy."

If the Buccaneers decide to make a concerted effort to contain Olsen, there are two ways to do it, Yoder says.

"You jam him on the line of scrimmage to disrupt his route running," he explains. "And then you might play coverage over the top after you hit him. You might have somebody hit him on the line that's not really responsible for covering him, but just to hit him, to jam him. … The other way you get away with it is you play soft zone over the top and jam him when he comes off on his release (at the line of scrimmage)."

If all else fails, tell him it's too bad he didn't get the part for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Maybe that'll throw him off his game.

• • •

A closely guarded secret around the league is that the Panthers have for years relied upon the expertise and advice of Ra's al Ghul and the League of Shadows.

Legend has it that he once told the team: "You know how to fight six men; we can teach you how to engage 600. You know how to disappear; we can teach you to become truly invisible."

I can't say for sure how much influence Ra's al Ghul has these days, but his fingerprints were evident throughout the Buccaneers and Panthers' September contest. Consider this second-quarter play action pass on 3rd-and-2.

The Panthers set up in a power running formation with an additional tackle on the left side of the offensive line, two tight ends next to each other on the right side and no receivers. Before the Panthers even break the huddle, the short-yardage situation has the defense thinking run, and the additional tackle not only reinforces that but also draws their attention to his side of the field.

Every player on the line fires off the ball and blocks hard to the left while Anderson begins handing the ball off. Every indication is a run to the left, and every defender buys in.

Anderson pulls the ball back and runs a bootleg to the right, while Olsen releases his block and sneaks out of the scrum to the right. Safety Mark Barron (traded Oct. 28 to the St. Louis Rams) was lined up over Olsen originally and was likely his responsibility, Yoder says, but he's eaten up by Ed Dickson's block.

"When the guy you're covering goes to block down, your natural reaction is you think it's run," Yoder says. "So the whole premise behind this play on a bootleg is that (Olsen) is going to sell that block, and he wants his defender that's covering him to take the cheese that it's a run. As soon as he senses that that guy bit, he's going to wheel out and escape."

Linebacker Lavonte David chases down Olsen, but not before he picks up 9 yards to keep the drive alive.

The Panthers have been doing this all season long. In Week 6 against the Cincinnati Bengals, they masterfully sell the run on a go-ahead fourth-quarter touchdown. And once again, it's Greg Olsen, lined up as the inside tight end, who manages to escape into the open field unnoticed.

On this 1st-and-10 inside the red zone, the Panthers show the defense a power run look just as they did against the Buccaneers. The difference here is that instead of an additional tackle, they bring in a third tight end. That tight end is going to run straight downfield toward the end zone and take cornerback Leon Hall with him, which clears space underneath for Olsen, who runs a little drag route over the middle.

The Bengals are thinking it's run all the way and get so sucked up by the fake handoff that they completely lose track of Olsen sneaking his way through the defensive line.

Great play design fooled the defense, Yoder says.

"They pull the guards, too," he explains. "That really sells run to the backers. Everybody looks like they're (run) blocking."

Theatricality and deception are powerful agents.

• • •

Final analysis

Even though the Panthers are coming off a 41-10 upset over the Saints in New Orleans, they are not offensive juggernauts — even when Cam Newton is under center. After all, less than a month ago, they managed only 17 points against the league's worst defense (Atlanta Falcons). How can that be? Well, sometimes the NFL doesn't make any sense. Remember how many points the Pittsburgh Steelers scored in Week 10 against the 1-8 New York Jets after scoring nearly 100 points over the previous two weeks? 13. Go figure.

So, throw out the 41 points last week (they've scored the sixth-fewest points at home). Throw out Jonathan Stewart's 150 rushing yards last week (he rushed for only 20 the first time the Bucs and Panthers met; the Bucs are allowing just 3.9 yards a run this season, 11th best). No NFC South team has won two straight games this season more than once, so even though the 4-8-1 Panthers are in the playoff hunt and even though they'll want to win for their injured quarterback, my pick is one that doesn't make much sense: The Bucs win, and by winning I mean losing their hold on the No. 1 draft pick.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tbassfootball.

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