Panthers coach Ron Rivera believes second-year quarterback Cam Newton has been pressing and trying to hit too many downfield passes when other receivers are open underneath.
Newton had one of his worst games Sunday in a 16-12 loss to Seattle. He completed 41.4 percent of his passes (12 of 29) for 141 yards – both career lows – and was sacked four times.
Newton did not lead a touchdown drive.
“I think he’s pressing, personally I do. He wants to make things happen so much,” Rivera said Monday. “He’s trying very hard to do those things, do the right things. It’s all part of him developing as a football player.”
Through five games, Newton is off the pace he set in 2011 when he was the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year. Newton’s 58.8 completion percentage is nearly identical to his 58.2 percentage at this same point last season.
But he’s thrown for 456 fewer yards and has taken four more sacks. Rivera and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said there are times when Newton has to get rid of the ball more quickly.
Although the Panthers’ vertical stretch offense relies heavily on downfield throws, Rivera said Newton needs to learn there are times when shorter passes are better.
“It’s not just to advance the ball quickly. But it’s to work the different levels, different options and different combinations that are there. They take this away, come down and get this,” Rivera said. “I think sometimes he holds it a little bit. He’s waiting for that guy to clear, and sometimes it’s too late.”
Newton ranks 20th in the league with a 80.9 quarterback rating, down slightly from his final rating of 84.5 last season.
Newton targeted veteran wideout Steve Smith 13 times against the Seahawks, resulting in four catches for 40 yards. No other wideout or tight end was targeted more than three times.
Tight end Greg Olsen had a combined 13 receptions for 187 yards the previous two games against the New York Giants and Atlanta. Against Seattle, Olsen had two catches for 37 yards.
But Chudzinski said he did not think Newton zeroed in on Smith too much.
“Most of the opportunities were there and the coverages were such that we felt pretty good about getting the ball to Steve,” Chudzinski said. “A couple of times he did lock into Steve and he could have been somewhere else.”
Added Rivera: “I think Cam was trying to get the ball downfield too far. You look at some of the things that happened where he hit Brandon LaFell underneath on the short cross. When you see those opportunities those are the ones you have to take. As he continues to develop in this offense he’ll be able to understand those are some of the options he has.”
Just as troubling as where Newton threw the ball against the Seahawks was how he threw it. He was sailing passes over his receivers much of the game, then bounced one at the feet of tight end Ben Hartsock after the Panthers had driven to the Seattle 1 in the final minutes.
When Newton threw to his running backs on screens or checkdowns, they weren’t catching the ball. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart had several dropped passes.
But Newton took responsibility for the passing game woes.
“Our offense is designed to throw the football down field, but it’s on me as the quarterback to manage this football game,” Newton said. “Even though the shots weren’t there downfield I have to be accurate in throwing the ball underneath and throwing the ball to the checkdowns, and that didn’t happen.”
The Panthers will use the open week to try to fix the passing offense, which ranks 21st in the league at 223 yards a game. The work will include getting Newton more comfortable with his mechanics in the pocket.
“Obviously there were some overthrows,” Chudzinski said. “Sometimes when you’re in the pocket it’s not always clean and there will be people around you, so you can’t always set your feet ideally the way you’d like to. But those are the things we’re working on with Cam.”