CHARLOTTE – The Panthers' first-team offense finished a set of plays in Wednesday's team practice period and took a break while the scout team worked against the starting defense in the next sequence.
On cue, assistant head coach Jeff Nixon and Carolina's three running backs jogged to the TV monitors underneath a tent on the sideline. They reviewed plays, asked questions, and talked strategy before running to the practice field for another set of plays.
When the offense traded off with the defense again, Nixon and the trio trotted back to the tent. It's been routine throughout the season.
And based on recent results, it looks like they're seeing things more clearly on game day.
"I just think it's good to get some extra time," Nixon said. "Any time you get extra time to watch film, especially when they just performed the rep, I think it really resonates with them. And they remember exactly what they did right or exactly what they did wrong right away."
D'Onta Foreman, Chuba Hubbard, and Raheem Blackshear take instant looks to see if they're making correct reads on run plays in practice. Nixon said they look for tracks and aim for landmarks – for example, running toward the outside leg of a guard – while keeping a look on their eyes and field vision. It's all about details and fundamentals, and having immediate feedback is helpful.
"We try to be real detailed with that," Nixon said. "(It) makes a difference on if it's going to be a successful play or not, depending on their general fundamentals for each run."
Foreman said reviewing tape on the sideline has helped him make the most of his practice reps. Once he goes back in for another set of plays, Foreman can apply what he saw immediately to his next reps.
"You can see what went wrong or what went good immediately; you don't have to wait until we go to the meeting (later in the afternoon)," Foreman said. "Once we go back on offense, you learn from that immediately. It's been pretty good. I enjoy it."
Something is working right in Carolina, as Foreman and Hubbard each put up career-best yardage totals (165 for Foreman, 125 for Hubbard) with seven runs of at least 21 yards split between the two of them in last week's win over Detroit. The Panthers put up a franchise-high 320 rushing yards against the Lions.
Since interim head coach Steve Wilks took over in Week 6, the Panthers are averaging 151.6 yards per game on the ground, and are up to 10th in the league in rushing yardage as they've made it the centerpiece of their physical persona. For reference, the league average is 120.9 per game, and the number under Wilks would rank third in the league for the entire year. But running like that takes more than attitude. It takes detailed work.
It also takes plenty of technology, and the people to make it happen in an outdoor setting away from the comforts (and nearby electrical outlets and convenient wifi connections) of a meeting room.
The outdoor setup includes one television, a computer, and five tablets that show two camera views of each play (one from the sideline and one from the end zone). The five-person football video team helps set it all up for each practice, which takes about 15 minutes daily.
The cameras report back to a central hub, which uses DVSport 360 Rewind software. The equipment takes about 10-15 minutes to break down at the end of each practice. But for the help it provides for the backfield, it's time well spent.
Beyond the IT and video assistance, there's plenty of other people making those lanes for the backs to see clearly.
Nixon gave plenty of credit to the Panthers' dominant offensive line, which held off the Lions' defensive front and cleared the way for Carolina's backs to get downfield.
"We've made some good reads, broke some tackles," Nixon said. "But I really credit the line for opening up some really, really good holes and coming off the ball, giving us a chance to get to the second and third level."
The running backs also review their plays in pass protection while they're under the tent. Nixon said they look to see if they're receiving calls from quarterback Sam Darnold or center Bradley Bozeman and ensure they make their blocking assignments.
Nixon says he has seen improvement in every area throughout the year, and it's a testament to the progression of the season, more game reps, and reviewing the tape.
"It's improved drastically since the beginning of the season," Nixon said. "I think the more and more guys are getting reps and getting their opportunity to play in games, they're making the most of it and just becoming more comfortable with everything we're doing – run-game wise, in pass protection, and catching the ball out of the backfield."
Blackshear, a rookie, said watching tape on the field between reps at practice was new to him when he got to Carolina, and five-year veteran Foreman hadn't instantly reviewed his film on the practice field either, in previous stops in Houston and Tennessee.
But it'd be safe to say reviewing the tape is helping set a good tone for the Panthers' run game, where Carolina has found a consistent key in critical wins.
"I think it's definitely been helping," Foreman said. "I take pride in (that) because I know if something didn't go right, I can say, 'All right, well, I'm going to go watch it in a second.'"
View photos from Wednesday's practice as the Panthers get ready to travel to Tampa Bay this weekend.