Heading into the 2011 NFL Draft most experts felt the Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, while the most physically gifted athlete at the most-important position in the game, was still a project. It was widely believed it would take Newton a few years at the professional level before he'd be ready for full-time duty.
The reasons seemed clear at the time. At Auburn, he played in a stripped-down spread offense that didn't require him to make many reads. He was asked to look at maybe one or two receivers and if neither was open, pull it down and run. NFL quarterbacks must be able to go through a progression in their reads, something one doesn't typically learn how to do overnight.
There were also rumors about his intelligence and many questioned his character, with allegations he stole a teammate's laptop during his time at Florida a topic of discussion at the Scouting Combine. Many compared his game and persona to that of fellow Heisman Trophy winner Vince Young, who was drafted third overall in 2006 by the Tennessee Titans. Young's recent failures, both on and off the field, had many teams worried that Newton might follow suit.
QB Cam Newton
Brian A. Westerholt/Getty
Yet Carolina thrust those worries aside like Hal McRae once did his office desk phone and took Newton with the first overall pick. They named him the starter in the preseason but with offseason programs canceled due to the lockout, most assumed Newton would have a rough go of it early on.
Instead, he threw for 422 yards and 432 yards his first two games, while also leading the team in rushing, demonstrating to everyone how NFL-ready he actually is. He's turned the ball over too much, which everyone expected, yet he's also shown an ability to make big plays with both his arm and his legs. Last week, on a rain-soaked field, Newton's numbers fell back to earth but he was able to lead his team to a game-winning scoring drive late in the fourth quarter.
No one is doubting him any more. It appears this kid is for real. Now it's the Chicago Bears' turn to try and corral the electrifying rookie.
"He is a rookie but he's playing at a high level for a rookie," Brian Urlacher said. "He's throwing the ball all over the place. He makes plays happen. He keeps them alive with his leg."
Newton has thrown for 1,012 yards his first three games, good for third-most in the league behind only Tom Brady and Drew Brees. He's shown decent patience in the pocket, especially considering his age, and a willingness to take what is given to him. Yet he isn't afraid to air the ball out and stretch a defense – he completed a 77-yard touchdown pass in just his third career pass attempt.
"He's got a cannon," said Lance Briggs. "Tall guy, he can see down the field, he can see clearly. He can throw it into tight spaces. He can create more time with his feet. He's dynamic in a way that's going to make him a force for years to come."
The first step in defending Newton is to take away his favorite target, wide receiver Steve Smith. The veteran wideout has had a career resurgence working with Newton, catching 8 passes for 178 yards and 2 TDs in their first game together. Smith's 349 receiving yards on the season rank third in the NFL.
The Bears are fully aware of how dangerous he can be, having watched him carve up their defense on numerous occasions, including Smith's 12 catch, 218-yard performance, with 2 TDs, in the 2005 playoffs.
"Steve is a dangerous player," said Briggs. "No matter where he lines up, you need to know where he is. They're going to try to get the ball into their playmakers' hands and he's one of them. He's one of the big guys."
The Bears will need to roll a safety over the top toward Smith on Sunday. They cannot allow him to get open downfield and pick up big chunks of yardage. Bracketing him with a safety and cornerback should limit his damage.
If the defense can take Smith out of the game, they'll have to then turn their attention to Carolina's two tight ends, Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey. The two have been extremely effective serving as Newton's two-ply security blanket. They have combined for 21 catches and 306 yards. Olsen made the game-winning grab against Jacksonville last week and, as Bears fans are fully aware, he is a big-play threat over the middle.
TE Greg Olsen
"They move [Olsen] around a lot so we've got to be aware of that and know where he's at all times," Urlacher said. "It looks like Cam tries to find him as much as he can."
The secondary will receive a boost this weekend with the return of safeties Chris Harris and Major Wright. Harris' leadership on the back end has been sorely missing the last two games. His presence on the field will aid in limiting the success of Carolina's tight ends.
"It'll be crucial [to get Harris back]," said Briggs. "He's a guy that helps us go. He's a general back there. I look at him in the same respect as I looked at Mike Brown when he was here. He's a playmaker and needs to be on the field."
Yet even if Harris and the rest of the secondary and linebackers can shut down Newton's biggest pass-catching targets, they still have to worry about his feet. His ability to keep plays alive and pick up yards on the ground can be just as dangerous as what he can do as a passer.
"He's not as shifty as a Michael Vick but he can create a lot of plays," Briggs said. "He's young and he likes to put his nose down in it. When quarterbacks like that like to run and get their nose in it, defensive players need to be licking their chops and get their shots in."
In addition, Newton's size (6-5, 248) makes him difficult to bring down.
"He's a big guy. He's a D-lineman, a D-end at the quarterback position," said Israel Idonije. "So we've got to have all 11 guys to the ball. We've got to swarm. And he doesn't like going down, so you've got to be really conscious when you're going after him that you've got to hit him and wrap him up."
By accomplishing those three tasks – roll coverage to Smith, shut down the tight ends and keep quarterback contain – they'll have no problem with Newton. He's thrown four interceptions so far, so getting him out of his comfort zone should lead to turnovers. As long as they execute, the Bears' defense should come out on top.
"You never forget that no matter how well he's played, he is a rookie," Briggs said. "It really isn't what year he's in or what he's doing, it's about what we do. We need this game. We have to win."
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.