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Spy games: Opponents shadow Panthers QB Cam Newton, but at a cost

Carolina Panthers vs Houston Texans with Jonathan and Joe

Charlotte Observer writers Jonathan Jones and Joe Person discuss the Carolina Panthers' next opponent, the Houston Texans. What is Luke Kuechly's status? Will this be another ugly win for the Panthers?
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Charlotte Observer writers Jonathan Jones and Joe Person discuss the Carolina Panthers' next opponent, the Houston Texans. What is Luke Kuechly's status? Will this be another ugly win for the Panthers?

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton looked a little slow last week.

On a read-option keep against the Jacksonville Jaguars we’ve seen him run for four years, Newton ran to his left and tried to beat a Jacksonville defender to the edge.

But Jaguars linebacker Dan Skuta caught Newton by his right leg and took him down after a gain of 4 yards.

Last year had that happened, you could chalk it up to the surgically repaired ankle or the cracked ribs. But a healthy Newton being stopped in Week 1? Maybe he had lost a step.

“Lost a couple,” Newton said wryly this week. “But hopefully I gained a couple, too.”

Newton better hope so this week against the Houston Texans.

Those (Texans) guys can create nightmares for offenses, but we can’t let that deter us from what we do.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton

Houston boasts one of the best defensive lines in football with reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney on either side of the line and run-stuffer Vince Wilfork at nose tackle. The Panthers will roll out, have a tight end chip a pass rusher, and keep running backs in to help pass protect.

In the end, Newton will still have to be himself. That means using his legs to get out of trouble, extend plays and help the Panthers get to 2-0 to start the season.

“I’m taking my snaps and I’m taking my drops and I’m thinking in my head, then I’m probably missing someone downfield,” Newton said. “Don’t get me wrong, those (Texans) guys can create nightmares for offenses, but we can’t let that deter us from what we do. My main focus outside of technique, completion percentage (and) running away from people is to win football games. That’s what I’m here for.”

Spy games

Running has always been a part of Newton’s game. But even in Newton’s Heisman Trophy-winning season at Auburn, the Panthers saw a player who didn’t scramble past the line of scrimmage, but laterally to extend plays and find open receivers.

As the Panthers have moved away from the read-option-heavy offense of Newton’s first two seasons, more teams have started to designate a “spy” on Newton, Rivera said.

In a traditional 4-3 defense, with four linemen and three linebackers, a spy could be a defensive end who stays back rather than rushing the passer or a linebacker who comes up toward the line of scrimmage in case Newton runs.

When people spy us with him, his effectiveness as a runner does go down.

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, on quarterback Cam Newton

These adjustments open opportunities for the Panthers if Newton recognizes them. A defensive end spying means a three-man rush, and usually more time for Newton to throw.

A four-man rush with a linebacker spying means the pressure is on, but there should be a receiver open in a crease or seam if Newton can find him.

“When people spy us with him, his effectiveness as a runner does go down,” Rivera said. “And the thing he has to do is he has to make the good decisions downfield. When he does that, they’re big plays.

“Again, you’re taking a guy either out of the pass rush and giving (Newton) more time or taking a guy out of the coverage and giving (Newton) some more creases to find them. If he finds those things downfield, he’s going to make plays.”

Don’t hesitate

But Newton can’t take too long to find those open targets. In last week’s victory over the Jaguars, Newton absorbed a sack on second-and-goal from the 14 that went for a loss of 11.

Left tackle Michael Oher was beaten on a spin move by Chris Clemons, but the following day Rivera stuck the blame Newton for holding the ball too long.

On that play, from snap to when Clemons first made contact with Newton, 2.9 seconds elapsed, which is an eternity in the pocket in a pass-happy league.

He’s not afraid to get out of the pocket. He’s not afraid to stay in the pocket.

Texans nose tackle Vince Wilfork, on Panthers QB Cam Newton

Newton ran 14 times last week, a number Rivera said was too high. But the Texans say they understand that Newton’s running ability is only part of it.

“He’s not afraid to get out of the pocket. He’s not afraid to stay in the pocket,” nose tackle Vince Wilfork told Houston media. “That’s one of the things that when I look at him on film, you really can’t say he’s automatically going to beat you on the ground because he does stand in that pocket. He takes some licks but he keeps on getting up and also he delivers some good footballs.”

Game-planning against Watt

Carolina’s greatest challenge on offense this week – along with scoring points and avoiding more drops by receivers – is handling reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.

Watt lines up mostly at defensive end but can play anywhere along the line. He’s the only player in league history to have multiple seasons with 20 or more sacks, and he may be the best pass rusher the Panthers face this season.

The Panthers are game-planning against Watt, sure. But what can they do that other teams haven’t?

We move him around so it’s hard to always know where he’s going to be.

Texans coach Bill O’Brien, on defensive end J.J. Watt

“We move him around so it’s hard to always know where he’s going to be, but I’ll say that different teams take different approaches,” Houston coach Bill O’Brien said on a teleconference. “Some people try to double him in the running game, try to double him in the passing game, try to slide the protection to him. Some people try to run away from him, some people try to cut block him, different run schemes to try to influence him.

“The guy is a great player. We as coaches are thankful that he is here. He’s a great leader, great player and he had a hell of a game against Kansas City.”

Watt is coming off a game where he had nine tackles, six for loss and two sacks. He showed a high motor on every one of his 68 snaps and bottled up most plays that came his way along the right side of the offensive line.

This week Watt has lamented not forcing a turnover in the loss to the Chiefs and made it a goal of his and the defense for Sunday’s game in Carolina.

Not the only focus

But Newton can’t be focused solely on avoiding Watt. On the other side of the line is Clowney, and there are nine other capable defenders playing for the Texans.

“It’s that old saying, ‘The strong defeat the weak, the smart defeat the strong,’” Rivera said. “So we’re going to take our best shot at it.

“I mean we’re going to show up on Sunday. They’ll bring their best players, and we’ll bring our best guys and we’ll try to do the best we can.”

They’ll bring their best players, and we’ll bring our best guys and we’ll try to do the best we can.

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera on the Houston Texans

There are ways to beat the Texans’ defense, of course. The Chiefs took advantage of two first-half turnovers inside Houston’s 15 by the Texans offense and turned them into 14 points.

But the Chiefs also moved the ball on the Texans in the first half with a large dose of screen passes. Even Watt admitted he was surprised by the amount of screens the Chiefs used with quarterback Alex Smith, who was able to mitigate the Texans’ pass rush with the short passes.

In practice this week Newton was working on taking his velocity on short passes down a notch, something that had led to incompletions in the past.

And then there’s the rushing ability of the quarterback, who is eager to prove he hasn’t lost a step.

Jonathan Jones: 704-358-5323, @jjones9

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