Scouting report: Panthers' Cam Newton making plays, but accuracy iffy
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Rookie quarterbacks collide as a pair of first-round picks face off on Sunday, when the Minnesota Vikings travel to Carolina. Christian Ponder showed some promise in his first outing for the Vikings, but No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton has shown something else entirely. Sam Monson of ProFootballFocus.com, which breaks down film from every NFL game, takes an inside look at the Panthers:
The Carolina Panthers have an interesting offense that is pretty well-tailored to their personnel and strengths. They use a lot of designed cutback runs, moving the line of scrimmage in one direction and sealing one end for their runners to cut back against the flow and exploit open field. They are not afraid to put QB Cam Newton (6-foot-5, 248 pounds) back in the shotgun and actually use that to run from, as well as throwing in a few designed quarterback runs and option plays. They will take shots downfield, with no other passer in the NFL going deep (20-plus yards) more than Newton so far this season. Look for them to use play-action to try to spring WR Steve Smith (5-9, 185) behind the defense.
You won't find too many defenses less complicated than the Panthers'. They have been a pretty vanilla 4-3 defense for a number of seasons now, despite new coaches at the helm, but this season they have started to mix in some three-man fronts and 4-3 "over" shifts to combat their problems up the middle against the run. In coverage, they will use an extra safety in the box to stop the run without much persuasion needed, and that leaves them running a lot of Cover-3 and Cover 1, with linebackers expected to cover a lot of ground in coverage.
We have to start with Newton, who is busy reworking rookie record books. That's not to say he's perfect -- far from it -- but he is a unique athlete and one that must be accounted for.
Much the way Eagles QB Michael Vick presents unique challenges to a defense -- encountering a quarterback many of the defenders can't outrun -- Newton has the athleticism and strength to overpower a single defender and make big gains when things break down. He also has the kind of arm that can fire a ball deep without setting his feet, meaning teams have to stay disciplined deep even when he starts to scramble around or he can hit a receiver for a touchdown. That being said, Newton's accuracy is patchy and throws have a tendency to get away from him, especially early. He can produce turnovers as well as spectacular plays.
Carolina has been struggling at the defensive tackle position for years now, and attempted to plug the hole with a pair of rookies in this year's draft. DT Terrell McClain (6'2, 297) in particular has looked out of his depth and unable to anchor against the run. The Vikings should be able to move him around in the run game and open up some holes for HB Adrian Peterson, even given the performance of the Vikings O-line. His rookie teammate, NT Sione Fua (6-2, 308) has been markedly better against the run, but is still far from impressive. That spot remains an issue for the Panthers.
When they lost RT Jeff Otah (6-6, 330) for the season, the Panthers got a lot worse at right tackle. Otah isn't a world-beater, but they don't have anybody close to the same level that can replace him. Former Viking Ray Edwards feasted on the backup fill-in, Byron Bell (6-5, 339), when the two met in Week 6 and Vikings LE Brian Robison should be able to enjoy similar success this week. Otah is now the fourth Panthers o-lineman to land on injured reserve this season and leaves them hurting up front.
Strengths and weaknesses
Carolina has an interesting dynamic on its offensive line now. In LT Jordan Gross (6-4, 305) and C Ryan Kalil (6-2, 295), they have two of the better players in the league at their respective positions, but they are joined by three players who are at best below-average. Gross arguably will be the first legitimate test for Vikings RE Jared Allen all season, and Kalil will be active in the run game at the second level and on the edge on screens. If the Vikings want to win in the trenches they are going to have to target the other players and win individual matchups outside of those two. Bell, LG Travelle Wharton (6-4, 312) and RG Geoff Hangartner (6-5, 301) can all be beaten and need to be exploited.
On the other side of the ball, the weakness up the middle is proving to be an issue, and one the Panthers are trying to compensate for with scheme and formations. The lack of a solid interior is impacting the play of the linebackers behind them, with MLB Dan Connor (6-2, 231) and SLB James Anderson (6-2, 235) looking shadows of the players we saw last season. So far, the Panthers have been playing on the back foot for much of the season and it has put them in some tough spots.
They are not without strengths though, and RE Charles Johnson (6-2, 275) in particular can still bring pressure around the edge. Johnson may not be threatening the league lead in sacks, but he has added more than 20 additional hits and pressures and cannot be ignored. Their offense is packed with playmakers, and Smith remains one of the league's best and has a history of going off against the Vikings.
Neither side is the complete package. Both have strengths and weaknesses that suggest this will be a fascinating matchup. The NFL is a quarterback-driven league these days and this game will likely come down to which rookie can make the most plays or, perhaps more important, the fewest mistakes.