How do Packers stop dual-threat Newton?

Pete Dougherty
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Colin Kaepernick is 3-0 and has put up an average of 401 total yards per game against the Green Bay Packers.

Russell Wilson is 2-0 and, in the regular-season opener six weeks ago, directed an offense that put up 36 points and 398 yards on them.

For coach Mike McCarthy's Packers to have a big season in 2014, that will have to change, because the NFC's path to the Super Bowl probably will require beating Kaepernick's San Francisco 49ers, Wilson's Seattle Seahawks, or both.

That will mean better defending these premier read-option-type quarterbacks than the Packers have so far. They'll face just such a test Sunday in Carolina's Cam Newton.

There's no denying that the read option has presented a new set of problems to NFL defenses. But the Packers' issues, and really those of most defenses, isn't as much defending that package of plays as it is the dual threat these quarterbacks present overall. Because while Kaepernick and Wilson have hurt the Packers at times orchestrating the read option, they've done as much or more damage with their scrambling and throwing.

Green Bay's Dom Capers isn't the only defensive coordinator to struggle against the best dual threats in the league. Kaepernick is 21-8 and Wilson is 27-10 as NFL starters, so they've beaten a lot of teams. But their occasional poor performances and 18 losses combined still mean others have succeeded where the Packers have failed.

"There's no one sure way to get it done, I promise you that, otherwise everybody would do it," a defensive assistant for an NFC team said. "There's no question (Capers) has gotten bit a couple times with that (dual-threat quarterback). But it's not a situation where he's stubborn in his ways, I'm pretty sure about that. It's a copycat league. If somebody else is doing something that's working, you'll put it in."

Newton presents the best dual threat the Packers have faced since Wilson in the opener. The New York Jets' Geno Smith and Miami's Ryan Tannehill also are athletic quarterbacks who run some read option, and the Packers beat both this season. But neither is as good running or passing as Wilson and Newton, so the Packers' challenge Sunday is much greater.

Newton doesn't have as much skill-position talent around him as Wilson. In the offseason, the Panthers cut their best receiver, Steve Smith, for salary reasons, so Newton's No. 1 target is rookie Kelvin Benjamin.

Newton also isn't as good of a pure quarterback as Wilson. But he's a huge man (6-feet-5, 245 pounds) with excellent speed (4.59-second 40) and a big-league fastball. He appears back at full running capacity after ankle surgery in the offseason and a cracked rib in training camp — last week against Cincinnati he rushed for 107 yards on 17 carries.

"He's a big sucker," a scout for another NFC team said. "Throwing the ball better this year than he ever has. He's limited with weapons outside the numbers. I would put him down the scale as far as — I know he had 100 yards last week, but I'd still take Kaepernick or Russell Wilson over Cam Newton. Better overall quarterbacks. Cam's a good athlete, very good athlete, talented player. But when it's time to make the throws, I'm going with the others."

Sunday's game should offer a sense of how far the Packers' defense has come since its dreadful performance against Wilson in the opener, though it also must be noted that the Seahawks have one of the NFL's best running backs in Marshawn Lynch. Even if Carolina's Jonathan Stewart (knee) returns Sunday, defending the Seahawks is tougher.

Still, Newton and Wilson are running quarterbacks, and it's worth looking back at Wilson's strong performance that kept the Packers' defense off balance most of the opener. The Seahawks ran nine read options in that game, and Wilson handed off on all. Lynch gained 110 yards on 20 carries. Wilson had 32 yards on four runs (three scrambles, one called run), plus three kneel-downs at game's end. Though his passing numbers were modest (191 yards), he was sharp and error-free (no interceptions, 110.9 rating).

The Packers probably will see at least as much if not more read option Sunday, and Newton is far more likely to keep the ball. Last week against Cincinnati, Newton kept the ball on nine of 13 read-option calls. He also had four predetermined runs (two sneaks, two straight runs) and two scrambles (18 yards).

"The first thing you do going into the week (is say), 'We can't let them control the game with the quarterback running the ball. We need to send that message early, they need to know that,' " the defensive assistant said. "(But) there's no simple answer, because when you account for the quarterback, that's where they outnumber you."

Said Capers: "The quarterback gives you one more guy you have to defend. If the quarterback's not a runner, you don't have to account for (him). The decision they have to make is how much they want to expose the quarterback to getting hit."

Wilson rarely takes hits because even on read-option runs he uses quarterback-protection rules and slides when the defense closes in. Newton, on the other hand, is far more willing to get tackled, presumably because he's bigger than most of the players hitting him.

But while Newton ran the read option well last week — he averaged 6.2 yards on his read-option keepers — it probably will be more telling what he does as a passer and scrambler. That's how Kaepernick has hurt the Packers since gashing them with the read option in the playoffs in the 2012 season.

In the teams' next meeting, the 2013 opener, Kaepernick rushed for only 22 yards but threw for 412 in the 49ers' 34-28 win. And even in last season's playoffs, though the Packers overall played a credible game defensively (23 points allowed), they couldn't stop Kaepernick with the game on the line. In the final 5 minutes of a tie game, Kaepernick took his team 65 yards to the game-winning, chip-shot field goal as time expired. Maybe his biggest play was converting a 3rd-and-8 with an 11-yard scramble.

Among the Packers' responses to Kaepernick has been using their two most recent first-round draft picks (lineman Datone Jones and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix) to get more athletic on defense, and signing free agent Julius Peppers last offseason. But the Packers still lack speed at one key position group, inside linebacker.

Neither A.J. Hawk nor Brad Jones can run with the likes of Kaepernick, Wilson or Newton. Jamari Lattimore, who has displaced Jones as a starter, is more dynamic, but it's not at all clear if he can run with these quarterbacks, either. Not a lot of inside linebackers in the league can.

Last week, for instance, St. Louis used linebacker Alec Ogletree, a 2013 first-round pick, to spy on Kaepernick, but with only marginal results. Kaepernick threw for 343 yards and gained 37 more on three carries — "He was laughing at it," said the scout, who watched the game video this week — in the 49ers' 31-17 win.

"The best way to stop a running quarterback is to play a player who's fast enough to run his (butt) down for a 2-yard gain," a defensive assistant for another NFL team said. "If you don't have somebody in that (middle) area and he comes out of that pocket scrambling, holy Jesus, sometimes there's 20 or 30 yards in front of him."

Spy or no spy, one key to defending dual-threat quarterbacks is keeping them in the pocket. They're most dangerous when they break the pocket and either scramble or find receivers on improvised plays downfield.

But to do that, the outside rushers have to sacrifice sacks for contain. And it often requires an extra inside rusher, either an inside linebacker or safety, to close off scrambling lanes up the middle. That means fewer players in coverage.

"Squeeze the pocket," the scout said. "Your goal still is to get sacks, disrupt him, get him off his spot. But you don't want to flush him. You'd rather keep him in that pocket and squeeze him. I'll tell you who's been doing a good job of that: Detroit."

In the end, the beauty of dual-threat quarterbacks is they force defenses to cover six skill-position players instead of five.

There aren't many accomplished dual threats in the league. Kaepernick, Wilson and Newton are there. Washington's Robert Griffin III was and might be again, but he's exhibit No. 1 for the high cost of running quarterbacks taking hits.

The scout included Aaron Rodgers even though the Packers don't run read option. And Andrew Luck probably fits as well because, like Rodgers, he scrambles for first downs and makes throws outside the pocket even though he doesn't run the read option.

"In this league you can take any one thing away," Capers said this week. "It's just if it makes you vulnerable in other areas. The key is to be able to do a job on (the running quarterback) and not make yourself vulnerable."

— or follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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