How Cam Newton and the Panthers got their groove back on offense

After three weeks of football, the Panthers were 2-1, but there was a collective sense of concern about Carolina's offense. Getting limited to 13 points by the Saints at home will cause some panic. Two weeks later, the Panthers are considered one of the five best teams in the NFL, primarily because the offense took a mammoth leap forward in road wins over the Patriots and Lions. Jumping to conclusions about anything three weeks into an NFL season is a fool's errand. 

So what happened? Cam Newton looked awful against the Saints but he's been in MVP form over the last two weeks. It's a combination of factors, but there's no reason to believe the strong offensive performance shouldn't continue against the Eagles on Thursday night.

Health

This should be an obvious factor when it comes to the Panthers increased success: Cam looks healthy. He was mad after beating the Patriots about being snubbed by the media before the game; doubting Newton coming into a road matchup against New England wasn't even a stretch. He did not look healthy against the Saints. After taking a shot from Cameron Jordan on the Panthers first trip into the red zone, Newton looked off. 

He has looked just fine the last two weeks, however, and his accuracy has started to tighten up. It's not unreasonable to think that Newton would need a few games to really feel healthy after playing just a series in the preseason. 

Plus, he needs to find a rhythm with his guys. Newton's offseason shoulder surgery meant limited reps with the entire offense and it has shown early on in the season, with the quarterback being off multiple times in terms of timing with his receivers, particularly down the field. It's my belief the playbook the first three weeks was tightened up as Newton tried to mesh with his receivers; it looks like against San Francisco and New Orleans the Panthers went with old standby plays to give Newton a level of comfort. The Saints experience with those probably burnt the Panthers. Against Buffalo, Mike Shula did a nice job exploiting the Bills defense to scheme open wideouts deep, but you could argue he got a little cute trying to outcoach his old colleague Sean McDermott. 

Deep Passing 

Against Buffalo, Newton still managed to push the ball down the field fairly well. But the chunk yards he picked up were mostly schemed to deliver 10-15 yard plays that were carving out Buffalo's zone. One of the things that was apparent during the first three weeks of the season was that Newton's comfort and accuracy on the deep ball just weren't there yet. He missed a number of busted coverage plays against the 49ers and Bills.  

The numbers, courtesy of Pro Football Focus, reflect his struggles, with Newton failing to really push the ball down the field in the first few weeks and missing open receivers. 

Week

Att/Comp 

Yards

TD/INT

Acc. %

1 (@SF)

1/3

25

0/1

33.3

2 (BUF)

1/2

20

0/0

50

3 (NO)

1/3

37

0/0

33.3

4 (@NE)

2/5

63

0/1

40

5 (@DET)

2/3

95

1/0

66.7

The Lions numbers don't even do Cam justice for the work he did down the field. Look at his NFL Next Gen Stats passing chart and you see a guy who was pushing the ball vertically and finding great success.

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via NFL.com

The two deep touchdown throws were not busted coverages against Detroit, either. The toss to Devin Funchess, the shorter pass, was a laser while Cam was moving in the opposite direction, while letting his big receiver do the work in the back of the end zone. 

And if there were any concerns about Cam being healthy, the dime he dropped to Kelvin Benjamin put all of it to rest.

Sweet mercy that is a big time throw. That's taking a rebound receiver and putting the ball way down the field where no one else can get it. This is what was supposed to make the Panthers offense so dangerous this year -- big guys who can stretch the field vertically combined with the new kids who would take the pressure off of Cam by carving up teams underneath for chunk yardage AND the threat of Newton running, plus an improved offensive line.

It might be starting to take shape, but it still needs some tweaking. 

Forcefeeding McCaffrey

Christian McCaffrey, the newest weapon in Carolina who was much hyped coming into 2017 -- many NFL experts saw him as a good bet to win OROY -- has been a disappointment so far. And it might still take some time for Carolina to figure out how to use him. Thus far the Panthers have had middling success with the former Stanford star, who has just 333 yards from scrimmage, one touchdown and a fumble. 

The Panthers clearly felt early on that they needed to forcefeed him -- but have backed off in recent weeks and really are steering away from featuring him in the rushing game. The dropoff in rushing down snaps, via PFF, is substantial to note.

Game

Rush. Att.

Targets/Receptions

Rushing Down Snaps

Passing Down Snaps

1 (@SF)

13

7/5

22

25

2 (BUF)

8

5/4

9

35

3 (NO)

4

11/9

9

32

4 (NE)

6

6/4

18

30

5 (DET)

3

7/5

9

28

I firmly believe McCaffrey can be a full-time weapon at some point in time, because he has the skill set. But right now he's not running between the tackles the way you would need a feature back to run. He is, however, a fantastic diversion and dynamic player when put in the right position. The Panthers just need to focus on putting him in the right spots, like they did against the Pats with this play-action screen. 

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via NFL Broadcast

Look at all that glorious, glorious space. This is what I like to term the "McCaffrey Zone," because he will devastate people given room to move around. And it is OK not to forcefeed him, because his home-run presence will keep teams honest. Everyone is going his way when Cam, after faking an end around swing pass to McCaffrey, turns around and dumps a screen off to Fozzy Whitaker for the Panthers first touchdown in Week 4. 

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via NFL Broadcast

That is some good flow. Misdirection might be the play moving forward with McCaffrey in the red zone as well. Thus far, there has been a noticeable tendency to try and make sure the rookie gets a score when the team gets close to an opponent's end zone. 

It looks like the Panthers feel the need to give McCaffrey opportunities close to the goal line, even if the play doesn't make sense. He has gotten at least one red zone look in every single game, an interesting choice with a team that features Newton at quarterback and big, tall weapons like Benjamin and Funchess. Speaking of red zone woes ... 

Red Zone Struggles

People get hot and bothered by a lack of points for an offense, which is fine, but sometimes it ignores production at the sake of being mad about efficiency. For instance, the Panthers were a good offense the first three weeks of the season, but they stunk in the red zone. The Panthers didn't execute well and featured largely vanilla playcalls in the red zone during the first three weeks. Twice there were situations where Newton was sacked when a pass rusher strolled by left tackle Matt Kalil unimpeded and into the backfield to put Cam on his back. 

Weeks

Red Zone Efficiency

Points/Game

1-3

2/8 (25%)

15.0

4-5

5/8 (62.5%)

30.0

This is not brain surgery. When you score more red zone touchdowns you are going to score more points as a team. The Panthers have been doing that the last few weeks. 

Part of the problem is trying to make McCaffrey work, but the Panthers were just vanilla in the red zone the first three weeks. They would run early, get stuffed and then try to force vertical passes out of standard formations. When teams are expecting that, you better have receivers ready to win and a quarterback dialed in. The Panthers did not, but that has changed the last two games.

Formational Versatility

One thing that's popped up a bunch this year so far, particularly in the last two games, is Carolina using a bunch formation. That's not a staple of the Mike Shula offense. But against the Patriots, the Panthers started to use it more frequently and with great success. By my count they used the bunch once against the 49ers in Week 1, four times against the Bills in Week 2, once against the Saints in Week 3 and then used it SIX TIMES before the half against the Patriots.

We like to credit New England for making in-game adjustments, but this was really smart stuff by Shula and Co. Carolina must have recognized miscommunications in the Pats secondary, because they started bunching up receivers and confusing the New England defensive backs. Late in the second quarter it led to Benjamin sitting wide open for a 43-yard reception thanks to two guys following a single pass catcher.

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via NFL Broadcast

Newton is already throwing there and Benjamin has a pasture in front of him. Troy Aikman started talking about tying the game up on the next play, but Carolina had different ideas. The Panthers motioned Funchess into a bunches formation (that's a good fantasy team name by the way) and there was more confusion. Dude was waving his hand five yards past the line of scrimmage while Pats defensive backs were scrambling to play catchup.

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via NFL Broadcast

Running bunch formations is a pretty simple way to confuse defenders, in terms of muddling the assignments everyone is expecting to deal with when receivers break off the line while also giving the quarterback some pretty easily defined reads. Carolina's done a nice job of using them frequently over the last two games. Expect to see more. 

Letting Cam use his legs

Something I tried to point out all offseason was that the Panthers "changing their offense" for Cam made no sense. He doesn't take big hits as a runner. Sometimes he will be hit big, but by and large Newton is pretty good about avoiding contact when moving around on designed runs. The Panthers trying to stick him in the pocket all the time makes it MORE dangerous for Cam. 

And, one might argue, you are literally making life more easy for defensive coordinators and defenders. Cam being able to run adds tremendous leverage to what defenders have to deal with. To wit, look at the space here on third down against the Pats:

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via NFL Broadcast

That was a designed QB run that picked up chunk yardage. The Panthers would be lunatics for not using Cam as a weapon in the running game, or at least making sure everyone knew he was willing to run. They have been doing a much better job of it the last two weeks. Again, expect it to continue. 

Funchess in bunches

Another major factor in all of this that can't be ignored is the emergence of Funchess as a legit No. 1 wideout. He has been beasting out on the field since Greg Olsen went down with an injury against the Saints. Over the last three games he has 27 targets for 18 catches, 181 yards and three touchdowns. 

There was a question about his emerging physicality that resulted in a "CNN Drama" after Cam responded with some sexist remarks, but it was a good question: Funchess has been extremely physical the last two games, dragging defenders and fighting for the ball. The breakout we thought would come last year is happening now, in typical post-hype fashion. 

I would also be remiss not to credit the offensive line for stepping up its play, despite the absence of Ryan Kalil, over the last two games. Maybe that's a lack of pass rush from New England and Detroit, but Cam is getting cleaner pockets.

The hallmarks of the Panthers' 2015 Super Bowl team were versatility in formations and efficiency in the red zone. The Panthers did not display those in the first three weeks, but have shown flashes of a dangerous offense over the last two weeks. At 4-1, they may be ready to hit a little run here and go on a tear. 

First up will be a massive test against the Eagles, a team loaded with pass rushers on the front seven but limited in the secondary. Carolina's ability to protect Cam, disguise the offensive attack, let McCaffrey hit his spots and take advantage of the deep ball will go a long way toward winning the game on Thursday night. 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Will Brinson joined CBS Sports in 2010 and enters his seventh season covering the NFL for CBS. He previously wrote for FanHouse along with myriad other Internet sites. A North Carolina native who lives... Full Bio

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