I don’t care which team you’re a fan of or where you’d rank Panthers star Cam Newton among the league’s top quarterbacks — this exchange between Newton and Packers linebacker Clay Matthews during Carolina’s 31–24 win on Sunday was one of the coolest things that’s happened all year:
Clay Matthews alerts his team that the Panthers are running a wheel route.— CAR Panthers News (@CarPanthersNews) December 18, 2017
Cam responds: You been watching film, huh? That's cool. Watch this
**Touchdown pass to McCaffrey
As the Panthers broke the huddle on second-and-goal from the 7-yard line in the first quarter, Matthews surveyed Carolina’s personnel and formation and barked out orders to his fellow defenders, alerting them to a possible wheel route (an out-and-up route meant to get the defender to bite on what he thinks will be a shorter route toward the sideline before the back turns upfield for a deeper pass) on the short side of the field. Newton heard Matthews’s defensive commands, and with a smile, effectively called his own shot: “You been watching film, huh? That’s cool. Watch this.”
Newton then took the snap, dropped back, and casually tossed a touchdown pass to rookie running back Christian McCaffrey, who didn’t run a wheel route, but instead ran an angle route over the middle of the field. It was a fantastic look at not only the type of trash talk that goes on during most games, but the chess match between offense and defense — and how the Panthers have used their versatile rookie to confound defenses all year long. When Matthews incorrectly predicted that the Panthers were looking to get McCaffrey open on the outside, Newton knew then and there that he was about to put the ball into the end zone. And while the former MVP quarterback gets all the attention for his Babe Ruth–style taunt — rightly so; it was really awesome — it’s because of McCaffrey’s versatility that Newton knew he had the Packers’ number.
Before breaking down how the Panthers schemed up that first-quarter score, though, let’s take a look at what it was that Matthews was looking for before the snap. McCaffrey has been targeted on wheel routes a few times this year, and whether it was a hunch or something about Carolina’s alignment before the play, Matthews thought another one was coming. Against the Bills in Week 2, McCaffrey ran a wheel route in a two-man combo with Kelvin Benjamin. Benjamin set a natural pick on linebacker Ramon Humber with his quick slant route to the inside, and when Humber had to adjust his pursuit to avoid Benjamin, it gave McCaffrey the separation he needed to sneak downfield and make the catch.
Against the Saints in Week 3, the rookie ran another wheel route, this time out of the slot, getting past safety Kenny Vaccaro for a big gain when Vaccaro overplayed toward the sideline.
And against the Dolphins in Week 10, McCaffrey ran a compressed version of that play, crisscrossing routes with his teammate on the outside to run what looked at first to be an out route before turning it upfield to gain some depth and give Newton a target in the end zone.
We may never know what Matthews saw in that Carolina formation to think that another wheel route was coming (Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula didn’t seem to know either), and it’s possible the Packers defender may have simply meant more generally that his cohorts should watch out for McCaffrey as an outlet pass on the outside. Either way, that’s not what the Panthers had dialed up. Instead, the play was designed to create space over the middle of the field for the rookie running back, as receiver Devin Funchess and tight end Greg Olsen ran a pair of clear-out routes meant to gather up defenders like a pack of zombies toward the scent of brains. From there, it’d allow McCaffrey to sneak in unnoticed behind them. Here’s how it’s drawn up:
And here’s how it played out:
Green Bay’s defenders congregate on Funchess and Olsen and are too slow to react to McCaffery sneaking out of the backfield on his angle route (sometimes called a “Texas route”) to the now-vacated safe zone in the middle of the field. Six points. It’s worth pointing out that while Matthews guessed wrong on that play, even if he had been right, the wheel route probably would’ve worked anyway. Safety Josh Jones sticks with Olsen; linebacker Blake Martinez — who appears to expect McCaffrey to run to the outside — tries to sort through the traffic but collides with the big Panthers tight end before he can get outside, instead getting carried into the end zone and out of the play. Regardless, it’s a credit to the Panthers’ scheming that Green Bay seemed to have little idea of what was coming.
That schematic confusion is where McCaffrey provides real value. Carolina has used McCaffrey as a Swiss army knife in its offense all year, with offensive coordinator Mike Shula deploying him as a ball carrier, as a pass-catching threat out of the backfield, and as a de facto receiver in the slot and on the outside. Through 14 weeks, the former Stanford star is second among running backs in receptions (73) and has scored five touchdowns through the air. While he hasn’t exactly taken the league by storm as a between-the-tackles runner (just 102 carries at 3.7 yards per attempt and two scores), he’s crucial to the Panthers’ offense because teams never know how to approach defending him. Is he a receiver? A running back? Do you send a cornerback out to match up with him, or a safety, or a linebacker? There’s no simple answer to that, and the wide variety of ways in which he’s deployed in Carolina’s scheme makes it damn hard to guess how he’s going to beat you on any given play. We saw that on Sunday when Matthews guessed wrong, and we’re going to see plenty more of it for the Panthers down the stretch.