Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews (52) stuffs Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) on fourth down late in the fourth quarter at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2011. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Green Bay Packers saw first hand all the possibilities that are Cam Newton.
They also eventually exploited the vulnerabilities that accompany a rookie quarterback, which was enough to defeat the Carolina Panthers 30-23 on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
So the Packers won the battle, which is all that matters for now. But it was hard for them, or anyone who watched, not to come away thinking they’d just witnessed the game’s next incandescent talent. Newton passed for 432 yards and came within an onside kick recovery of a chance to tie the game in the final minute.
“I’m glad we’ve got another potential elite quarterback,” said Packers backup safety Charlie Peprah, who admitted to being a Newton skeptic coming into the season. “I’ve heard people say there aren’t enough elite quarterbacks in the league anymore, I’m glad he’s playing as well as he is. He’s good for football and it’s fun competing against somebody like that — as long as you win.”
The win keeps the 2-0 Packers on pace with the Detroit Lions for the early lead in the NFC North Division, with their first intra-division game coming next Sunday at Chicago.
But the lasting impression won’t be the game’s outcome. Instead, it’s the increasing likelihood that Carolina will become a title contender in the next couple of years because of its new franchise quarterback.
It was reminiscent of the Packers’ opener in 2002, when Atlanta’s Michael Vick came to Lambeau Field in his first full season as a starter and in a losing cause showed the NFL it had a new game-changing weapon. Vick returned to Lambeau that season to give the Packers their first postseason loss at home.
Newton is a different than player than Vick, if for no other reason than his overwhelming size at 6-feet-5 and 248 pounds. But like Vick he’s a major threat as a runner (he had 10 carries for 53 yards on Sunday) and possesses a big-league throwing arm.
What stood out almost as much, though, was how Newton’s carried himself.
When the Packers won the opening toss, coach Mike McCarthy surprisingly had his team defer rather than his usual call to take the ball. Perhaps he wanted to see whether coordinator Dom Capers’ defense could knock Newton off balance right away after the rookie’s stunning 422-yard passing opener last week at Arizona.
But Newton showed from the start that his 110.4-point passer rating last week was no fluke. He punched the Packers in the mouth by hitting on six of seven passes for 90 yards in leading Carolina on a quick touchdown drive for a quick 7-0 lead. This wasn’t Arizona’s defense, which has a new coordinator, but the defending Super Bowl champions, who had the No. 2 scoring defense in 2010.
“I was like, (at) Arizona he had the great game,” Packers tight end Jermichael Finley said. “I want to see what he does against our D. He showed us.”
Part of the difficulty in defending Newton is his ability to run, which he demonstrated most impressively by juking the Packers’ best defensive player, Clay Matthews, on a 9-yard scramble in the first quarter.
Capers countered by instructing his pass rushers to hold their lanes, which turned them all into bull rushers and took some sting out of the defense. Capers chose to augment that with only an occasional blitz, in part because he wanted to force Newton to complete pass after pass to get his points, and in part because he didn’t have his best cover man, injured cornerback Tramon Williams, to put on Steve Smith in case the blitz didn’t get home.
This game, in fact, exposed how critical Williams is to the Packers' defense. Without him, Capers’ playbook shrinks, because in the nickel defense he can’t move Woodson to the slot, where Woodson is at best as a playmaker in what’s essentially a matchup with the quarterback.
Still, the Packers managed to sack Newton four times on his 50-plus drop backs and stopped the run without having to bring up an extra defender. Panthers halfbacks Deangelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for only 18 yards rushing on 11 carries.
“We definitely could use (Tramon Williams), I’ll just leave it at that,” nose tackle B.J. Raji said. “I think Dom would have had a little more versatility if we had (Williams) out there.”
More than the Cardinals did last week, the Packers exposed the rookie in Newton. They intercepted him three times, all of which were Newton’s responsibility.
The first, late in the second quarter, came when he forced a late pass to Smith in double coverage. Woodson made the first of his two interceptions on the day. The next was early in the third quarter, when Newton threw a floater off one foot after stepping back from Matthews’ pressure, and Woodson again picked it off. The third was on the Panthers’ next possession, when safety Morgan Burnett intercepted Newton’s overthrew down the middle to Legedu Naanee.
“Just a (bad) decision thing, that plain and simple,” Newton said of his turnovers. “I have to get that right.”
The Packers turned the last two interceptions plus a Smith fumble forced by Burnett into three third-quarter field goals that were the difference.
“Back-to-back 400-yard games and he threw the ball well, I’m just really impressed,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said of Newton. “I think somebody said in the locker room, kind of glad we played him early in the season because when he figures it out fully, he’s going to be even tougher to stop.”
The Packers rode the steady hand of their veteran quarterback to come back from a 13-0 deficit. Their lone turnover was a fumble by kick returner Randall Cobb.
Rodgers had his second straight game without an interception. Though his 308 yards passing seemed a little quiet next to Newton’s 432 yards, Rodgers outplayed the rookie because he made a few plays of his own — including touchdowns of 49 yards to Greg Jennings and 84 yards to Jordy Nelson — without turning the ball over. Their passer ratings reflected the difference — Rodgers’ was 119.9 points, almost 50 points higher than Newton’s 72.0.
“I’m not saying it’s a whole lot,” McCarthy said, “but we’re off to a good start.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.