The Seahawks stopped Cam Newton last season, but he didn't make it easy. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
"I ain't been nowhere, but I'm back." -- Rocky Lockridge, journeyman boxer
SEATTLE -- It's interesting that in a era when the mobile quarterback is more talked about and schemed against than ever before, the man who opened many eyes to the possibilities of this recent trend is now seen by some as an afterthought. In 2011, when Colin Kaepernick was riding the bench and Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson were still in college, Carolina's Cam Newton was breaking perceptions -- and several records -- with an inaugural season that should be seen as one of the best rookie campaigns in NFL history. He threw for 4,051 yards, ran for 706 more, combined for 35 total touchdowns and turned a rushing attack that was inefficient at best into the most effective in the league.
His sophomore season was nearly as good from a statistical perspective, especially in the second half of the 2012 season, but the perception shifted on Newton and attention turned to an amazing wave of rookie quarterbacks.
Coming into his third season, Newton seems ready to face and conquer new challenges. Former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski has moved on to become the head coach of the Cleveland Browns (a move that receiver Steve Smith seemed to celebrate more than anybody), and former quarterbacks coach Mike Shula has moved up in the pecking order to run an offense that will ostensibly be quicker, simpler in verbiage and back to basics in the running game. For a quarterback that has been reliant as much on play action as the option element, Newton has the potential to thrive in Shula's system.
Whatever the media may think about Newton in Year Three, make no mistake -- opposing coaches see him as a real threat at all times. The Panthers open the 2013 season by welcoming the Seattle Seahawks to Bank of America Stadium. Pete Carroll's defense kept Newton under wraps last season (190 total yards, and 141 passing yards from Newton) in a 16-12 win in Week 5, but Carroll spoke this week about how much -- and in how many different ways -- Newton can hurt any defense.
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"He really taxes you as much as a quarterback can because he’s a terrific quarterback in the pocket, his presence is good, he can make all of the throws -- he can do all of that stuff," Carroll said. "He’s as dangerous as you can get when he takes off and runs out of that stuff and all of the basic stuff. But then they add all of the running game along with it. Not just the QB read stuff that you guys have been following and reading so much about, but he runs power sometimes in critical situations.
"We just have to try to tackle him well, we have to manage our rush lanes, we have to scheme properly because [running back] DeAngelo [Williams] just rips with the ball when he’s carrying it too. It poses all of the problems that you could possibly face, and they have skill guys all across the board that can make things happen."
Shula has pledged to take it back to the run game as a fulcrum of the Carolina offense, which certainly makes sense. Last season, the Panthers often tasked Newton to throw to receivers running vertical, isolated routes without the optimal benefits of scheme and formation diversity. Newton was not up to that, and it's not a specific ding against him -- last year, Joe Flacco struggled at times with different versions of iso routes, and it wasn't until Jim Caldwell opened things up a bit as Cam Cameron's replacement that Flacco became what he is now. In a system where Newton is helped by a more integrated offense, he can really be special.
So, what does one do against the ideal version of Cam Newton?
"Everything," Carroll said. "We have to do everything right. This is not easy. This is as difficult a plan that we have to put together. That’s why we have been working on it for so long.”
Teams have different strategies to deal with mobile quarterbacks. The Green Bay Packers appear to be ready to beat the crap out of Kaepernick in the Week 1 rematch of last year's divisional playoffs. While that might get in Jim Harbaugh's head, the truth is that if hitting the quarterback over and over was the way to stop the read-option and Pistol in the NFL, the NFL would have been done with it already. It's a far more complex problem, and one that the Seahawks are looking to solve against Newton more with assignment-correctness than unbridled aggression.
"For us, it's about being technique-sound," said defensive end Cliff Avril, who dealt with Newton as a member of the Detroit Lions' defense. "Just playing your assignment, and making the tackles when you're supposed to make them."
That's the simple version. Outside linebacker O'Brien Schofield, picked up on waivers from the Arizona Cardinals and with the memory of dealing with Kaepernick and Russell Wilson fresh in his mind, expounded on the disciplinary challenges these quarterbacks pose.
"I've had my practice with Terrelle Pryor in college, and I've been against Cam since I've been in the league," he said. "So, I know what to expect. You've definitely got to bring your hips, because these guys are very athletic, and they'll bounce off tackles. Usually, they have bad ball security -- they'll keep that ball out there -- so we'll definitely be going for that."
And as the Seahawks have discovered, the best defenses split the different elements of the option into different assignments per person.
"We did a lot of film study, and we worked on it a lot during camp," Schofield said. "We went against it with our offense, and the most important thing we were able to do was to just trust each other. When you go against this type of offense, you have to be very disciplined in reading your keys, doing your job, and not trying to do anything outside of that. Because as soon as you do ... that's when that one play hits. Whoever has the quarterback, whoever has the dive, whoever has the pitch -- you're on that every single play. You have to be responsible in your rush lanes, and you can't leave gaps on the field. Keep an eye out, and know where he is at all times."
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The Seahawks showed a fine example of this when they faced the Panthers last season.
Week 5, 2012. 3:14 left in the first quarter, and the Panthers have second-and-8 at their own 18-yard line. They line up in offset Pistol, with Jonathan Stewart on Cam Newton's right.
Pre-snap, receiver Kealoha Pilares jumps to the backfield with a sweep look, confusing the possible mesh point for an option play. Newton fakes to Stewart and runs to the right, with Pilares as his possible pitch target.
With Newton and Pilares in space, linebacker K.J. Wright is the pivot defender. It's his job to avoid biting too hard on either Newton or Pilares. He must watch and diagnose until the play unfolds.
After an initial fake to Pilares, Newton pitches to his receiver. Because Wright did not bite on the fake, he was in position to make the play on Newton or PIlares, who is tackled after a 12-yard gain.
And that's why Newton is so dangerous. The Seahawks played and anticipated this play about as well as any defense could, and it was still a productive gain for the Panthers.
"When I look at him ... Cam is a unique athlete," Schofield said. "He can pass out of the pocket, he can run, and he's obviously a physical specimen. It's not something you see out of your average quarterback -- that height and that athletic ability. We've all seen film, and we know what he can do."
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There's an additional challenge for defenses in situations like these, and it comes in the defensive backfield. Safeties are especially taxed when balancing the need to come up and help in run support with the possible greater need of staying back to deal with whatever Mr. Quarterback is preparing to throw downfield. If you make the wrong decision, you have "taken the cheese" in NFL verbiage, and you are in big trouble. Seattle safety Earl Thomas plays his position as well as anyone in the league, and he's learned how to straddle that line.
"I think it's complicated when you try and do things out of scheme. If you play disciplined ball and you know what you've got to have and really trust the teammate beside you, everything will take care of itself. It's self-explanatory when you're talking about the option in general. We have a lot of looks at it because our offense does the same thing. It's just different people and different personnel, but I think we'll be okay."
Richard Sherman told me that among Seahawks cornerbacks, the task of reading run keys only starts after a receiver blocks -- before that, it's all about coverage. More and more, it became clear that Seattle wants to eliminate "if this/then that" as much as possible.
"Tell you the truth, we don't," Sherman said of reading keys. "We stand there and guard our man, and if our man starts to block, we can go play the game with him. We're engaged with the receivers in one-on-one matchups, and we have to win those. That's what we're concerned about, first and foremost.
"It makes the game simple -- you've got this job, you've got this job, you've got this job."
"Do your job" is one of the NFL's ultimate mandates, And in doing it that simply, defenses may have their best (and only) answer against Cam Newton, and those who have followed in his wake.
BURKE: Seahawks No. 2 in preseason Power Rankings; Panthers No. 22