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Adding linemen produces a layer of creativity for offense

Cameron Erving, Cade Mays

CHARLOTTE — When fans think about "creative" offenses, they generally think daring-young-man-on-the-flying-trapeze stuff, about multiple receivers running this way and that, about quarterbacks flinging it all over the yard.

Of course, creativity is about using conventional tools in unexpected ways, about seeing the world differently. So if you were expecting a pillow fight, a shovel upside the head is creative in its own way.

So for the Panthers lately, creativity has been about using their large objects as blunt instruments, putting extra offensive linemen on the field, and letting big men do what big men do. That means veteran tackle Cameron Erving and rookie guard Cade Mays have found a niche, and a home among an offensive line that was already so far beyond last year's.

"When you get a sixth one of us in there, that's a lot of mass to get in there and move bodies around," Panthers guard Austin Corbett said. "Any time you get an opportunity, you put a wrinkle in there, be ready to adjust, and go and attack them."

That's been the case lately for the Panthers, as they're leaning into being physical, with interim coach Steve Wilks emphasizing often, "it all starts up front."

Mays actually got his first NFL snap at Baltimore the week before, lining up as a fullback on a third-and-1 and helping D'Onta Foreman convert a first down against the Ravens.

But Sunday against the Broncos, he got even more run, and so did Erving, and it began to become a persona.

Mays reported eligible for five plays (another was nullified by a penalty), using his big body as a fullback on a variety of calls. Four were runs (for 24 yards), but there was also Sam Darnold's 15-yard pass to tight end Ian Thomas on the first play of the day.

Erving got significantly more action as the more traditional extra lineman on the line of scrimmage for 16 plays. Fifteen of those were runs for 56 yards, but he was also out there for the biggest pass play of the day, Darnold's 52-yard splash play down the sideline to DJ Moore.

All told, Mays and Erving were on the field for eight of the team's 19 first downs, one of the touchdowns (Darnold's Holy Roller), and most importantly, the final fourth-and-1 conversion of the day, which allowed Darnold to take a knee and kill the clock on a win.

If that's not creative, perhaps you should think of creativity differently.

Cameron Erving

"Again, with Gio [Ricci] being out this week, I commend the offensive coaches for trying to get creative and still find a way to utilize what we do within our system," Wilks said. "I'm proud of Mays. As I told him at the end of the game on the sidelines, I thought he stepped up this week and performed well."

Mays has some degree of experience, playing tight end and fullback at Knoxville Catholic, and he got a few reps in practice his first year at Georgia. Erving played tight end in his "smaller" past and has been around the league long enough to know that mixing it up has its own value.

"It does lean into the personality," Erving said. "These are situational opportunities, situational plays. We're not going to go out there on third-and-18 and put two extra linemen on the field. It's up to the coaches, how they view us, what they look, and how we can add value to the game.

"But I think it's huge to get guys out there."

Literally, in addition to metaphorically.

Putting another 300-pound body on the field is a statement of intent, and the way they ran the ball Sunday (185 yards on 46 carries) underscores that intent.

"For sure," left guard Brady Christensen said. "We talk a lot about our DNA, and for us, that's a DNA play. That's part of being physical, bring extra guys in, and we're going to run. That's the goal."

Cameron Erving

Of course, once you start incorporating offensive linemen, they're going to want the ball in their own hands.

Practice squad center Sam Tecklenburg gave them all hope during training camp (when they were running out of tight ends because of injuries, and he brought camp to a close with a touchdown reception).

"Tecklenburg, he played tight end; he made a big-time play. I'd run it back to him for sure," right tackle Taylor Moton.

"Flashback to camp, Teck made the play," Corbett said. "He immediately puked because it was a 15-play drive, but he made the play."

Likewise, when linemen talk amongst themselves, they dream about being playmakers.

Mays said he was envious of left tackle Ikem Ekwonu's straight-line speed (Ekwonu ran a 4.93-second 40 at the scouting combine), calling him a "true vertical threat."

But Mays also bragged about his own prowess with the ball, saying he scored "four or five touchdowns" his senior year in high school.

"The kid can run it," Mays said in the third person. "He has ball-handling skills; he can protect the rock.

"I can get that first yard, or I can jump-cut, bounce it outside and down the sideline; they just haven't seen it yet."

Cade Mays

The Chiefs ran a trick play for Erving in 2017 (the pass was broken up, sadly), but he said he caught it every time in practice.

So they continue to dream of being that guy.

"For sure, we all believe it," Christensen said. "But also, as offensive linemen, we're realistic people as a whole. We knew as kids, we might not be athletic enough to make it to the next level, but there's something else for us in the world."

Corbett laughed and said his skill-position days ended when he was a 7-year-old running back, and he immediately outgrew it and moved to the offensive line the following year.

"He was downhill," Corbett said of the scouting report of his 7-year-old self. "Straight. Hard-head, fight for tough yards. Wasn't much cut to him.

"My old O-line coach in Cleveland used to joke, if you're an offensive linemen, you have nowhere else to go, and if you can't do that, you're out of the league. So I've just been trying to ride it out."

Bradley Bozeman

For the most part, those dreams are a fun diversion. But they all grin when they start talking about it because you never know.

"For sure, it's cool having a lot of O-linemen on the field in any capacity," Mays said. "It's still kind of new right now, so the bag of plays is not too big, we're just breaking the ice with it, but we've got some first downs, so you never know, we might have a package with it."

Credit center Bradley Bozeman for having self-awareness. He wants no part of any discussion of touching the ball. Of course, he gets to on every play anyway, so the temptation may not be as strong.

"No. No, no, no," Bozeman said, and by the fourth "no," you know he's serious. "I'm not paid to have the ball in my hand; I'm paid to block for the guys who can. Unless there's a tipped pass on the 1-yard line on fourth and goal, I'm diving on it, that's it."

But he also knows that when the Panthers go heavy, there's something about it, a physical force stat stirs them all.

"When you see us out there on a day like today," Bozeman said in the locker room after the Broncos win, "that's who we want to be."

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