Every starting quarterback in the NFL has the job for a reason. He has a skill set that makes him capable of providing his team with the big plays that help win games.
Peyton Manning reads defenses like no other. Tom Brady has incredible accuracy. Drew Brees can buy time in the pocket and force the ball deep down the field. They all have developed their own reputation in the NFL because they excel at a specific aspect of the quarterback position.
When he came to the NFL as the first overall pick in the 2011 draft after leading Auburn to the national championship, Cam Newton was viewed as a quarterback with prototypical size and speed who could do more damage as a runner than as a passer. In his first two seasons, Newton rushed more than 250 times and scored 22 rushing touchdowns. While he was a decent passer, his running ability was his calling card.
But, in his third season, Newton is developing into a much improved pocket passer, adding the traditional throwing skills to his résumé. It was hard enough to stop Newton when the expectation was that he was simply going to take off and run with the ball. Now that he is more disciplined and becoming a better all-around quarterback, he is even more of a threat to opposing defenses.
"He's obviously progressed," defensive end Jared Allen said. "He's getting better. That guy is an athlete. It's not really surprising, but if you look at his development as a pocket passer, he's really trying to be that quarterback. I think he's really doing a good job in the pocket and is a lot like Big Ben (Roethlisberger). He's a big body, so he's able to shrug off tacklers and get outside the pocket and create plays down the field to throw the ball. He's not necessarily peeling out of there looking to take off running down the field. He's doing a great job of escaping the pocket and making throws down the field. That's probably something in his younger days he was more apt to run. Now you see him throwing the ball down the field and making big plays."
Newton has become a student of the game and has learned that the quarterback position is evolving. There's something to be said about the classic dropback passer, but the NFL game is changing and he is at the forefront of the multi-faceted quarterback.
"I just think it's football morphing into a different avenue," Newton said. "So many other players pose the same type of actions – being able to run as well as throw and being good at both. For me, it's just knowing when to do each. It can also be a gift and a curse. When you're running when you're supposed to throw, or when you throw when you're supposed to run, it's just up to the player who has the talent to control it and be dangerous when the opportunity presents itself."
The Panthers offense is still a work in progress. They don't have an extraordinary receiver corps. They're without running back Jonathan Stewart. But Newton has become more consistent and is as lethal as any quarterback that runs the read option.
"They're dangerous because the read option can do a lot of things, especially in that offense," linebacker Desmond Bishop said. "They have a very good running back in DeAngelo Williams who can make big plays. Cam has the size and speed to make plays with his arm and he is very dangerous when he's on the move. You have to stop so many different facets of the offense. He poses different threats because he buys time in the pocket and makes something out of nothing when his receivers are covered. Everyone knows what a running threat he is, but what impresses me is how much he has improved as a passer. He's a complete package."
While the defensive line will be charged with trying to keep Newton confined in the pocket, it will be the job of the linebackers to make sure that, if he does find an escape lane from the pass rush, they shut him down. It's all about sticking to fundamentals, even if they're facing one of the game's most unconventional quarterbacks.
"The biggest thing for us is maintaining our rush lanes," linebacker Erin Henderson said. "You have to put pressure on him, but you have to stick to your fundamentals. A lot of the big plays he makes is when he escapes the pass rush and gets in the open. That's when he can do a lot of damage. We just have to stay scheme-sound and not let him get into the position to make plays on the fly. We need to keep him contained and, when we get to him, wrap him up and bring him down."
In his first season, if the designed play wasn't there initially, Newton was quick to bail out of the pocket and take off running. In his third season, he's using his scrambling ability to buy time and look downfield for big plays rather than trying to self-generate big plays with his legs. The result has been that defensive backs have to maintain their coverage longer than they're accustomed to. One mistake on the back end can lead to a touchdown and the Vikings are preparing for Newton as though he's going to have the time to extend plays.
"From our end of things, we have to stick with the receivers longer than your brain tells you a play should be going," Smith said. "He's a big guy and doesn't go down just because the pass rush gets to him. We've been practicing on staying with receivers longer than we normally would because you never know when he's going to extend a play and give his receivers longer to get open. He's a challenge because he does so many things well."
Defensive coordinator Alan Williams will have his work cut out for him Sunday. While Newton isn't a mad scrambler anymore, he still offers the threat of being a runner. Williams and the Vikings will have to bring a disciplined approach in hopes of preventing Newton from making too many big plays. He will get his, but limiting those explosive plays will be the goal.
"Cam Newton is a guy that you're not just going to shut down," Williams said. "He's too talented. He's too big. He's too fast. You just have to make sure he doesn't kill you. He's going to hurt you at times. He's going to jab you, so you're going to feel his presence out there with throwing and with him running to football. We have to make sure that we don't let him just run around all day."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Containing Cam more than a run-stopping task
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