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Priority One: Cam Newton
In their first four games, the Seahawks’ defense has stared down Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo, and also come a handful of third-and-long blinks from doing the same to Sam Bradford.
But Sunday, this aggressive, attacking unit that ranks second in the NFL in both average points and yards allowed will see a quarterback unlike any it has faced in 2¼ seasons under coach Pete Carroll: Cam Newton.
“Where we’ve been rocking along and everything has kind of been the way we have set it up to be, this is different; this changes,” Carroll said. “The preparation that it takes to prepare for this style of quarterback is really different than other guys. He’s just an amazing football player.”
Seeing Newton do his thing on ESPN highlights is one thing. Seeing him do it on the game video the players are studying this week is another thing. But seeing Newton’s skills that are as diverse as they are ample up close is something only a few players on the Seahawks’ roster have experienced.
K.J. Wright, the Seahawks’ leading tackler, is one of them. The second-year strongside linebacker played against Newton two years ago, when Wright was at Mississippi State and Newton was quarterbacking Auburn to a national championship.
“He’s a real physical guy with a lot of speed,” Wright said. “You don’t see guys like him too much in the NFL, so we know we’ve got our hands full. But we’ll do a good job.”
Winston Guy, a rookie safety from Kentucky, also played against Newton in college.
“He’s a very good player and he’s very versatile,” Guy said. “And his size don’t lie. He’s all of that 6-5 and almost 250.
“But Gus (Bradley, defensive coordinator) has a great game plan for him. So if we do what we have to do, I feel like we can get a win this week.”
Where to start in dissecting just what the Seahawks will be up against at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte on Sunday? The obvious: Newton is 6 feet 5, 245 pounds and can run 40 yards in 4.56 seconds. And, he has a much better arm – especially on deep throws – than any of the nattering nabobs of negativity gave him credit for in the evaluation process leading up to the 2011 NFL Draft, when the Panthers made Newton the first overall selection.
“He is a marvelous thrower. He has tremendous downfield accuracy,” Carroll said. “He was way, way, way ahead of anybody else in the draft when he was coming out in his ability to function on throws that were way down the field.
“You can see it. He has just extraordinary accuracy on long balls and deeper developing-type of routes. So that is an issue.”
But let’s start with Newton the runner, since the Panthers have installed the zone-read or read-option in their offense under coordinator Rob Chudzinski to take advantage of Newton’s size and speed. Last season, when Newton was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, he ran for 706 yards and 14 touchdowns, the league record for a quarterback. This season, he has 167 rushing yards to share the team lead and already has run for three scores.
“He’s a big stud who likes running the football, and they’ve put that into their offense,” Carroll said. “So he does carry the ball quite a bit and he runs very aggressively for a quarterback. The option stuff that they run creates a whole other level of problems.”
As does the QB who is running it. “With Newton, you have to make sure you do a good job with open-field tackles, because he does a good job of shaking people,” Wright said. “And he’ll run you over, too.”
The QB slide? Not this guy. “He’s so different from any other quarterback,” Guy said. “Most quarterbacks when they run, they try to slide to avoid getting hit. But he likes to get hit. That’s his thing. I’ve never seen him slide. He didn’t even do that in college. So he uses his size and his speed as an advantage.”
Now, let’s look at Newton the passer. Last season, he threw for 4,051 yards, shattering the NFL rookie record that was set in 1998 by Peyton Manning; and his completions (310) and TD passes (21) were the third-highest totals by a rookie in league history. This season, he is completing 63.6 percent of his passes (68 of 107) for 1,013 yards, with four TD passes and five interceptions.
Said Guy, “His arm is stronger than anybody you can really think of. I remember when we played against him the year (Auburn) won the national championship. He made an unbelievable throw – like 50 yards, 60 yards off his back foot. I don’t know how the receiver caught it, but he did.
“So Cam can turn a nothing play into something. It can be an explosive play that changes the game in one pass. And he’s more accurate on the run. Most quarterbacks are more accurate throwing out of the pocket, but if he gets out of the pocket he looks for open receivers first and uses his legs second.”
Figuring out which Newton will do on any given snap is part of the puzzle that is devising a game plan to deal with him, because he is continuing to do in the NFL all those things he did at Auburn – and Blinn Junior College in Texas before that.
This season, Newton has a 40-yard run and a 66-yard completion. Last season, he threw TD passes of 91 and 77 yards and also ran 49 yards for a score.
“I believe you’ve just got to start with the running first, especially with the option that they run,” Wright said. “Then, you’ve got to be on the play-action (fakes) when he throws it deep.”
And do it all in half-a-blink.