Break It Down: Cam Newton's interceptions
In Break It Down, I will go back and analyze the Xs and Os of a notable play or performance from Sunday.
Two straight weeks now, Cam Newton has topped 400 yards passing. And for two straight weeks, the Carolina Panthers have come up on the short end of a close ballgame. Sunday's 30-23 loss to Green Bay was aided by three Newton interceptions, a pair of them thrown to Charles Woodson.
Carolina has had all sorts of trouble establishing a run game this season -- against the Packers, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for 18 yards on 11 carries -- meaning a lot is being asked of Newton.
The rookie QB threw 37 passes at Arizona in Week 1 and 46 in the Week 2 defeat. His numbers have been way more impressive than anyone expected, but the mistakes he made Sunday were costly.
Newton's first INT may have been as much the play call as anything. With Carolina up 13-7 and near midfield late in the first half, the Panthers called a max-protect pass for Newton on first-and-10. That play call meant Newton had a seven-man wall blocking for him against four Packers pass rushers, an advantage that resulted in this pocket:
Newton faked a handoff to Jonathan Stewart, who then slipped out into the flat and was picked up by Clay Matthews, being blocked at the top of the photo above.
Only two Panthers took downfield routes: wide receiver Steve Smith and tight end Jeremy Shockey. Smith ran a deep flag to the left sideline, while Shockey cut underneath on a crossing route. The problem for Newton, despite the protection, was that he had six defenders covering his two receivers. The result was this:
Newton made the ill-advised decision to try to fit one in to Smith, who was bracketed by two defenders. The player cutting in front of him is Woodson and he picked off Newton's pass (Watch the video here). Shockey was a far less dangerous option on this play -- a completion would have been tough, but the pass Newton opted for had extremely poor odds.
The second Newton mistake came under almost completely opposite circumstances. On that play, Newton had an empty backfield and five receivers to choose from. But the spread-out look left Carolina more susceptible to the pass rush, which created problems for Newton.
The protection actually wasn't all that bad -- Newton had a couple of seconds to scan the field before he started looking for a spot to scramble. Had he gone left, he might have picked up 10 or 15 yards, with the Packers in a man defense and dropping two safeties.
Unfortunately for Newton, though, he looked to roll right to his throwing side. Waiting there was Matthews, who hurried Newton into a wobbly pass off his back foot. Newton again was looking for Smith on the play, covered as he was all game by Woodson.
Smith actually had a step or two on Woodson on the play as he cut across the middle, but Newton's poor form on the pass took away the velocity he needed. Woodson had time to close on Smith and jump in front of him for the pick (Watch the video here).
Newton's third interception was another poor throw. Green Bay brought a four-man rush, with the Panthers sending four receivers downfield and slipping Stewart out of the backfield on a delayed route.
Facing third-and-10, Newton actually made the right read on the play and found Legedu Naanee downfield. Naanee had completely lost cornerback Jarrett Bush with a little stutter-step move and was slicing upfield into an open spot between Bush and safety Morgan Burnett.
But again, Newton shortened his release slightly because of Green Bay's pass rush. The result this time was that he airmailed an open Naanee and found a diving Burnett. To give you some idea of the overthrow, Naanee's already looking for the ball at the Carolina 35; Burnett intercepted it at the 50.
The good news on both the second and third INTs is that Newton appeared to make the right receiver choice -- both Smith and Naanee had some space if Newton's passes had been on target. Not surprisingly, Newton is still not entirely comfortable in the face of a pass rush and he should be quickly learning that tossing risky passes in the direction of someone like Woodson is ill-advised.
There's also the reality that Carolina is asking Newton to do too much. Any QB topping 40 passes against the Packers' aggressive and opportunistic defense is liable to make a mistake here or there. The Panthers' utter lack of a run game all Sunday meant Green Bay could sit back and wait for those Newton miscues. Two weeks into his NFL career, Newton has looked more than ready to hold a No. 1 QB gig. As Sunday showed, though, he still has some room to improve.