Newton offers no reprieve for reeling defense

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Nov 2, 2015; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) celebrates after beating the Indianapolis Colts in overtime during the game at Bank of America Stadium. Panthers win 29-26. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Parents always were clamoring to see the paperwork.

There was no way Cam Newton, nearly 5 feet tall and close to 100 pounds at age 8, should be in their son’s youth football league.

“The opposing team, they did say that a lot, ‘Check his birth certificate,’” Green Bay Packers safety Morgan Burnett recalled Thursday.

Burnett was teammates with Newton, the now 6-foot-5, 250-pound quarterback for the Carolina Panthers, during their early days of football in College Park, Ga., a suburb south of Atlanta. Only back then, Burnett was the quarterback, and Newton a two-way fullback and linebacker.

It soon became pretty obvious in grade school that the ball needed to be put in Newton’s hands as much as possible. By high school, he was throwing 30 passes a game at Westlake, while Burnett led rival North Clayton, and current Kansas City safety Eric Berry was under center at nearby Creekside.

Newton now is 26, and little has changed. He’s still bigger than nearly everyone on the football field and a chore to tackle. Burnett, in his sixth NFL season, has the unenviable task of getting Newton on the ground this Sunday when the Packers travel to face the undefeated Panthers (7-0).

“I’ll say he’s up there,” said Burnett when asked if Newton is the hardest NFL quarterback to tackle. “He’s built like a linebacker. He’s up there. He’s like a running back when he runs the ball.”

Burnett and the Packers have their work cut out for them, especially after watching their defense plummet the past two weeks. After giving up 548 total yards to Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers, Green Bay bled for another 500 to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in Sunday’s 29-10 loss.

While Rivers and Manning systemically picked the Packers’ defense apart with their experience, Newton can drive a defensive coordinator crazy with his dual-threat capability as a runner. His productivity out of the read-option has Carolina leading the NFL in rushing (144 yards per game).

Unlike other read-option quarterbacks such as Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick who have flamed out, Newton is the constant. He has more rushing touchdowns (four) than Packers running back Eddie Lacy (one) and nearly as many rushing yards (298-286).

Newton just doesn’t take hits like other quarterbacks, either. He delivers them.

“I think a lot of these guys who come in and run the read-option probably have a hard time taking the beating because you take a lot of hits,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “It’s like linebacker against linebacker with him when he’s running the read-option. He takes hits but it’s different with a 250-pound guy taking the hit than a 200-pound guy tackling the hit. He’s atypical in turns of the size and athletic ability.”

Although the Packers’ defense is reeling, you could make an argument they’re better suited to handle a quarterback like Newton than aging pocket passers like Rivers or Manning. That’s pretty incredible when you consider how poorly Green Bay played read-option quarterbacks in previous years.

Outside of last year’s opener against Seattle, the Packers have taken care of business against athletic quarterbacks over the past two years. They trounced Newton and the Panthers last season, though he was banged up in the 38-17 blowout at Lambeau Field last October.

The Packers exorcised past demons earlier this year against Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Kaepernick, who appears broken less than three years after leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl. After taking away their running lanes, neither could beat the Packers through the air.

As difficult as it is to tackle Newton, he hasn’t been the most accurate passer. Newton actually has completed only 54.2 percent of his passes this season, which is the lowest conversion rate in the league among quarterbacks on NFL rosters. His passer rating is a pedestrian 78.1.

Still, the Panthers owe their 7-0 record to Newton’s ingenuity, especially after losing second-year receiver Kelvin Benjamin in August to a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Newton has made a motley crew of receivers – Ted Ginn Jr., Corey Brown and Jerricho Cotchery – work along with Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen.

“He seems very comfortable this year in the scheme and what he’s seeing in the pass game,” Packers assistant linebackers coach Scott McCurley said. “I think there’s a lot of poise on his part and what he’s being able to do in the pass game. Once again, he can drop back and he’s always a threat to run. Great size, the arm strength is phenomenal. He can flip that ball from anywhere at pretty much any position.”

A key to stopping Newton will be the health of Clay Matthews, who has been limited this week in practice after rolling his ankle in Sunday’s 29-10 loss to Denver. It occurred during a scary incident in the third quarter where Matthews’ left ankle got trapped under rookie cornerback Damarious Randall.

Matthews left for the remainder of the series and the defense quickly unraveled with C.J. Anderson running for a 28-yard touchdown up the middle of the field. Matthews came back on the next series, but was noticeably hobbled.

“It's feeling good. I'm making progress,” Matthews said. “I think as you guys saw from the video and how it happened, it was pretty scary for me. Dealing with a little swelling and all that. But for the most part I'm hoping that it keeps progressing, moving in the right direction. I'm happy the progress was made over these past few days so hopefully come Sunday it shouldn't be too much of an issue.”

Matthews, who has played inside linebacker almost exclusively in the base and nickel defenses, knows he likely will be the one keeping tabs on Newton’s whereabouts. The dangerous part about Newton’s game is he has a live arm and he’s not afraid to step into a throw and take a hit.

There are consequences for that approach, however. He missed last year’s opener with a hairline fracture of his ribs, an injury that lingered during the Panthers’ 3-8-1 start. Since then, however, Carolina has won 11 consecutive regular-season games.

The Packers’ pass rush is coming off its worst performance of the year Sunday when it failed to sack the plodding Manning once, ending a streak of 42 consecutive games with at least one. Newton isn’t easy to take down, but getting pressure on the fifth-year quarterback will be equally essential.

Newton completed only 1-of-8 passes for 20 yards when he faced pressure in last year’s game, according to Pro Football Focus. The Packers also pressured him into two interceptions when they beat Carolina 30-23 during his rookie season.

“You know he does some things that I don't think many coordinators are comfortable with their starting quarterback doing as far as the hits he takes, where he's a lead for himself really where there's no blocker or no one, in essence, tackling him," Matthews said. "You wouldn't see us doing that with 12 (Aaron Rodgers) around here. A special athlete, though. He's really done everything that's been asked too this year and has looked great in doing so.”

Green Bay’s defense knows it doesn’t have time to sulk about its recent downfall. Newton is waiting to continue the nightmare if it’s not careful.

“That’s why I say it’s going to take a collective effort,” Burnett said. “He counts for a running back, and he can also drop back and throw it. So it’s going to take a group effort and everybody being accountable and doing their job and handling their responsibility.” and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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