Why spy? Packers' defense needs to neutralize Panthers QB Cam Newton
GREEN BAY – On a football field, he’s more genetic freak than mere mortal. Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers quarterback, was engineered in a video game. He’s too big, too fast to be real.
There he was last week, slicing through the Minnesota Vikings’ third-ranked defense. The score was tied. The two-minute warning loomed. Newton, 70 yards from the end zone, faked a handoff to running back Jonathan Stewart on a zone read.
Even after the Vikings bit on the fake, opening a big hole in the left B gap, Newton had work to do. Vikings safety Andrew Sendejo crashed down into the gap. Newton took one step to his right, another hard step to his left, and sent Sendejo to the ground with a wicked juke. The Vikings defense didn’t catch him until 62 yards later.
Blake Martinez, the Green Bay Packers' second-year linebacker, saw on film the difficulty of trying to tackle Newton.
“He’s one of those guys you look at in the NFL,” Martinez said, “and you’re like, ‘Oh, no. He’s a freak of nature.’ I think you kind of go about it in a way that you just have that much more urgency when you’re out there on the field to make sure you always know what they’re trying to do with him in any situation, whether it’s pass, run game, anything. He has the ability to stretch plays in the pass game and make people miss in the run game.
“This dude is a beast. You have to bring your A game every play, or he’s going to make you look stupid.”
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Martinez, in the midst of a splendid sophomore season, said he has marked three significant tests this year. The first, he said, came back in October at Dallas, playing against the Cowboys' vaunted offensive line and running back Ezekiel Elliott. The second was last month in Pittsburgh, facing Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell for the first time.
This, Martinez said, is the third major test.
Newton presents as unique a challenge as a linebacker can see in the NFL. At 6-5, 245 pounds, he’s a little bigger than Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, only with sprinter’s speed. His 4.59 40 time is almost identical to Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson's, only Newton is six inches taller and 30 pounds heavier.
“He’s able,” Martinez said, “to either run a guy over, or run right past a guy. It kind of makes you hesitate in certain moments of, ‘OK, this guy can either juke me out right now, or he could run me over.’ It’s like, 'How am I going to attack this in a certain moment,' and you’ve just got to trust yourself.”
The question, then, is how the Packers can defend a quarterback who not only makes all the throws but all the runs, too.
Newton has 585 rushing yards this season, leading all NFL quarterbacks by a wide margin (he has 103 more than second-place Wilson). Newton also leads all quarterbacks with five runs of at least 20 yards, and he has two runs longer than 60 yards in his past four games.
“He just does a great job especially on designed quarterback runs,” outside linebacker Clay Matthews said. “I think he's leading their team as far as rush yards, his average yard rushing. I think it's just more important, especially on those designed runs to get after him, take the ball out his hands, because he drives that entire offense whether he's handing it off in a zone-read, RPOs, or anything really. He's the one who makes that thing go, obviously.
“We'll have a tall task, but at the same time when we have opportunities to swarm him, get after him, we've got to take advantage of him.”
Newton is difficult to swarm. He’s perhaps most dangerous not on designed runs but scrambling when the pass rush closes.
The Packers witnessed Newton’s dual-threat ability in 2015, their last trip to Carolina. He finished only 15-for-30 as a passer, though he did have 297 yards and three touchdowns with only one interception. It was Newton’s ability to gain yards with his legs when plays broke down that gave the Packers fits.
On the first drive, the Packers' four-man pass rush pressured up the edges, leaving a gap in the line. There was no spy in the middle of the field, so Newton didn’t hesitate. He tucked and ran 23 yards, moving the Panthers into the red zone.
“He’s a fearless guy,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said, “because he’s bigger than any of your linebackers. You’ve got to really play good leverage on him. You’ve got to try to keep more than one person coming, and because he can quick stop and start, he’ll break the leverage down sometimes.
“That’s where you see the long runs.”
Newton isn’t just bigger than linebackers. He’s faster, too. Out of the pocket, Newton doesn’t run like a quarterback. He’s an extra running back in the Panthers' backfield, a powerful, downhill ball carrier.
Given his scrambling ability, the best scheme against Newton might include a spying defender to keep him inside the pocket. The problem is finding the right match. To look at the Packers' defense is to see no ideal player with the combination of size and speed to defend Newton one-on-one.
Matthews, at 6-3 and 255 pounds, is perhaps closet to meeting Newton’s physical traits. He ran a 4.67 40 at the combine in 2009, but his short-area burst is impressive. The Packers would be removing their best pass rusher from the line of scrimmage, though. That isn’t ideal against a quarterback with Newton’s arm.
If not Matthews, the Packers have a few other options. None of them are ideal. Rookie Josh Jones ran a 4.41 40 at the combine in February, but gives up 25 pounds against Newton. Veteran safety Morgan Burnett has played nickel linebacker throughout the season, but he’s at a roughly 35-pound disadvantage.
Martinez might be the best match if the Packers want to use a spy while preserving Matthews’ role as an edge rusher. At 6-2, 237 pounds, Martinez is closer to Newton’s size. His 4.71 40 means Martinez will have a speed disadvantage.
“It’s all about fundamentals,” Martinez said. “I think it’s just being able to be in the right position, have the right footwork, have the right understanding of how to get that type of guy on the ground.”