FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Cam Newton is one of the most uniquely gifted quarterbacks in the NFL. In addition to his skills throwing the ball, Newton's combination of size (6-foot-5, 245 pounds) and speed make him a very dangerous runner as well.
Newton led all Panthers players with 13 carries for 58 yards in Carolina's 16-8 win over the Dallas Cowboys in Week 1, and the Falcons' path to victory begins with containing him on the ground. Without Pro Bowlers Deion Jones and Keanu Neal that task becomes a bit harder, but the key to slowing Newton down is disciplined play along the defensive line.
The Panthers' offense is built around Newton's ability to run the ball and the attention defenders must pay him as a ball-carrier. At the heart of how this plays into their offensive scheme is the zone-read, which allows Newton to read an opposing defensive end and either hand the ball off or keep it himself based on the defender's reaction.
Newton runs the zone-read at a very high level, and he is adept at waiting until the very last second to make his decision, putting the maximum amount of stress on a defender. This was on display early in the Panthers' win over the Cowboys, as Newton waited for defensive end Randy Gregory to defend the inside run and then pulled the ball at the last second for a 29-yard gain.
Newton accomplished the same thing against Brooks Reed in the Panthers' Week 9 win against the Falcons last season.
"What they've got is all about misdirection and trying to fool the edge defenders," Reed said. "Just causing some confusion to make a defender step the wrong way for just a split second to get the edge. With his ability to run the ball, you've got to defend an extra player in the run game. It's going to be important for everyone to be on their keys and making sure everyone has disciplined eyes."
Defending the zone read requires discipline by the defensive end, trusting that his teammates can defend the handoff while he contains the outside run.
The Falcons did this well in their Week 17 win over the Panthers last year. In the play shown below, Takkarist McKinley forces Newton to make his decision first while keeping his shoulders square to defend both the outside handoff to the running back or the quarterback run.
As Newton lingered on his decision, De'Vondre Campbell scraped over top of the play and got into position to defend the running back.
It might not always be that simple, however. Once the Cowboys began defending the zone-read more effectively, first-year Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner dialed up a wrinkle off of the zone-read – the triple-option.
Although the Panthers have a new offensive coordinator in Turner, the zone-read remains a part of their offense. Against the Cowboys, however, Turner also called a number of designed runs for Newton, which Falcons coach Dan Quinn is certainly preparing for.
"I am expecting that," Quinn said. "It certainly is such a big part of their offense and I know they have a new offensive coordinator, but you certainly saw some of the same traits in their run game. Having an ability for the quarterback to have designed runs is different than maybe what you guys have covered in zone-read, when you're making a decision then hand it off or keep it based on the leverage of the player. So, he'll have some designs and runs automatically for him. When you do that you can add an extra blocker into the equation."
There are a variety of ways the Panthers can design runs for Newton, and one such way is the traditional bootleg. Newton's longest run against the Falcons last season came off a designed bootleg run.
Coming off the right edge, Vic Beasley sold out to stop the run, leaving only Robert Alford out on the edge to defend Newton.
That play hasn't left the playbook, either.
A player like Newton often forces a team to employ a "spy" against him, a player who is solely assigned to covering the quarterback. In the past, the Falcons have used players like Beasley or Jones to cover Newton because of their size and speed. With Jones and Neal out, the defensive line will be even more crucial in keeping tabs on Newton.
"He definitely presents a lot of different challenges for us," Beasley said. "You've got to be disciplined. There probably will be some times when me, Takk or whoever is in the game will have to spy – fast enough guys to keep up with him. We're looking forward to the game, but he's pretty tough to game plan for."
Of course, even on pass plays he's a threat to run the ball.
Certain quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Newton can take advantage of a breakdown in the integrity of a defense's pass-rush lanes. The defensive line will have to make sure to stay in their lanes while rushing him to try and collapse the pocket around him.
Otherwise, this may happen:
Even if the defensive line does create an opening for Newton to scramble, they can work to cut of his escape by adjusting their rush lanes and forcing him back inside as they did on the play below.
This game will be an important one for the Falcons' defensive line, who will need to remain disciplined and not allow Newton to escape out of the back door against them. The absence of Neal and Jones, two players who can clean up a lot of mistakes elsewhere, only makes the defensive line's job more vital.
A few key mistakes by the defensive line played a role in Newton running for 86 yards and a touchdown in the Falcons' 20-17 loss to the Panthers in Week 9 last season. In their second meeting last year, a 22-10 Falcons win on Dec. 31, the defensive line stayed with their assignments and held Newton in check. It's no surprise that the defensive line's attentive play helped limit the Panthers to just 10 points and 87 rushing yards total.
On Sunday, they'll need to do the same.
"It's tough," said Beasley, "but if we're disciplined, we own our keys and do what we're coached to do then everything will take care of itself."