For the start of this season, however, Newton was anything but Superman. Sidelined for the season opener with broken ribs, Newton rushed 15 times for just 42 yards (long of 13) and one touchdown in his first four games. However, on Sunday against Cincinnati, Newton looked more like the Man of Steal. With the running back position obliterated by injuries and Newton returning to health, he ran 17 times for 107 yards and a 12-yard touchdown. He especially took flight in the fourth quarter (seven carries, 41 yards, four first downs) and overtime (four carries, 27 yards, two first downs) in a 37-37 tie forged against one of the NFL’s top defenses.
Newton’s re-emergence as a runner comes at a bad time for the Green Bay Packers, who host the Panthers on Sunday. With a healthy Newton unleashed, the Panthers’ read-option attack will demand the respect it had lacked to start the season. That, in turn, should create room up the middle for the backs.
“I think the one thing is it adds credence to when we do run the zone-read package,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said during a conference call on Wednesday. “Earlier in the year, we ran the zone-read package but they really didn’t have to account for him running, so, really, you just saw the defensive ends crashing down, you saw the linebackers filling right now, you saw the safeties attacking. Now, all of a sudden, especially after last week, we expect to see guys being more disciplined and trying to read their keys.”
Whether it was Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill last week, Seattle’s Russell Wilson in Week 1 or previous matchups with San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, the Packers have had their problems against athletic quarterbacks, in general, and the read-option, at times. The Packers didn’t fair all that badly against Miami’s read-option game, though Tannehill had a 40-yard run and Lamar Miller scored a 5-yard touchdown to cap a series that featured several effective read-option runs. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Panthers ran 18 read-option plays for 86 yards, an average of 4.76 per carry. Take Tannehill’s run out of the equation, and Carolina averaged 2.71 on the other 17 read-options runs.
“We’re going to get a similar attack with an athletic guy like Cam Newton,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said on Monday. “We know what we’re getting there. Really, the one play I think got away from us a little bit (against Miami), I think that’s very correctable. I think in terms of them handing the ball off, the 20 rushes for 63 yards (by the Dolphins’ backs), I’ll take that most days. It wasn’t like they gashed us running the ball there. They broke the one 40-yarder. We’ll go back to work and get that cleaned up. We know we’re going to see that with an athletic quarterback coming in this week who ran for over 100 yards and threw the ball for a bunch of yards.”
The Dolphins directed many of their read-option runs at Matthews as a way of slowing down the Packers’ premier defender. Tannehill’s 40-yard run, as well as a first-down conversion, were run at Matthews. Matthews deflected criticism of his role on the 40-yarder, saying reporters are “looking for someone to blame.” Defending the read-option isn’t as easy as the generalization that the outside linebackers are in charge of the quarterback and the inside linebackers are responsible for the running back. That might be the case on one play but not necessarily the next.
In either case, the idea is to force the quarterback’s hand to turn the read option into the no option.
“You want to take that reading ability away from him,” Matthews said. “Sometimes it’s difficult with the extra player with which they have (with the quarterback being a running threat). That’s the biggest thing is taking away their options. When you start guessing, that’s when they start having some success. We need to be boned-up on what we have to do out there, and I think we will, especially after seeing it last week.”
The read option played a key role on the Dolphins’ first and second touchdown drives of their second-half rally. On the first, Tannehill had his 40-yard run when it appeared Matthews had lost contain, plus a 5-yard run by Lamar Miller. On the second, the Dolphins had five read-option runs gaining 35 yards, including three consecutive runs by Miller of 11, 9 and 5 yards for the touchdown.
“There's definitely been an onus put on that this week, stopping that zone read and making sure we're dialed in,” Matthews said. “There'll always be an extra blocker, runner, whatever you want to call it, with the quarterback being that remaining guy, but we've just got to do a better job of stopping that, and we will this week. I think last week was a good tune-up, if nothing else, for this week.”
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