TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are gearing up for a much different Carolina Panthers offense this week with quarterback Kyle Allen than the one they met in Week 2 under Cam Newton. The Bucs won the first meeting 20-14, but the Panthers' offensive production has exploded recently, topping 400 yards in two of the past three games.
With Newton dealing with a foot injury and recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, he managed to complete just 56.2 percent of his passes in Weeks 1-2 and struggled with the deep ball, going just 3-for-9 on passes of 20 or more yards against the Bucs. He was 0-of-10 passing under duress and wasn’t making plays with his legs, which is usually a staple of Newton’s play.
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner has found the sweet spot for Allen, not putting the second-year QB in too many risky situations (he has completed 66.7 percent of his passes the past three games but has gone only 2-of-8 on attempts of 20-plus yards) and letting his supporting cast do the rest.
The biggest difference has truly been Christian McCaffrey, who is now on pace to shatter Chris Johnson’s NFL record of 2,509 yards from scrimmage. In Week 2, the Bucs successfully deployed a spy or “green dog” who would follow McCaffrey throughout the game, limiting him to a career-low 2.9 yards per touch and 53 total yards. They were particularly good at limiting his work on the perimeter (he averaged just 1.8 yards per rush running off-tackle).
“Everything I’ve seen on the film, I didn’t like, because he’s running for touchdowns all the time,” Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said of McCaffrey. “They’re running the ball a lot better. You can tell they’ve come together as a unit and they understand who they are and they do it very well. Norv [Turner] does a great job at it.”
McCaffrey is running less on the perimeter than he had in Weeks 1 and 2 and more inside. He has benefited from Turner's use of misdirection and the success of wide receivers Curtis Samuel and DJ Moore. Turner is also showcasing McCaffrey’s skills better as a receiver, after hardly using him in the passing game in Week 2.
In Week 2, he wasn’t in the slot and he wasn’t lined up wide with an empty backfield as the Bucs have seen in the past. He posed no vertical threat, despite being a better route runner than some of the league’s receivers. He was merely catching 5-yard passes out of the backfield. This is what his route tree looked like in that game: (green dots are catches; white dots are incompletions).
By comparison, this is what McCaffrey’s route tree has looked like in Weeks 3-5. Granted, the white dots represent incomplete passes, but there’s a lot more variety (the blue dot is a touchdown):
The Panthers are also incorporating more pre-snap motion into their plays.
“The jet motions and the sweeps and things, getting McCaffrey out in space -- which they had done a little bit against the Rams when we broke them down, but [Kyle Allen] is an accurate passer. He’s playing really well,” coach Bruce Arians said.
The Panthers used the same midzone run play with McCaffrey and Reggie Bonnafon multiple times (and successfully) against the Jacksonville Jaguars last week, with the only difference in how they dressed it up, with a faked handoff to Samuel, for instance, that resulted in an 84-yard run for McCaffrey.
"We got an idea of all the flashes and some of the things that they do, but definitely they’ve picked up a lot and have done more since we’ve played them," safety Jordan Whitehead said.
In Week 2, the Panthers used pre-snap motion on 47% of their plays (34 of 73) and averaged 6.5 yards per play. Since then, the Panthers have used pre-snap motion 58% of the time, averaging 6.7 yards per play. Last week, they averaged 9.5 yards per play when using pre-snap motion.
“That offense with McCaffrey is special. You’ve gotta have great eyes and be on your keys,” Whitehead said. “They do a lot of motioning just to see what coverage you’re in, just so they can get an edge on you, get to the perimeter. It opens up the inside stuff, and they start jet-motioning all that.”