Struggling all season long against the run, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense is preparing for a dynamic it has yet to face all year – a running quarterback.
Carolina Panthers rookie Cam Newton quickly quieted many doubters by throwing for back-to-back 400-plus-yard games to start the season and is on pace to easily clear the 4,000-yard plateau. Having already faced the likes of Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, Tampa Bay has had its fair share of experience against quarterbacks posting gaudy numbers through the air. But neither of those perennial Pro Bowlers presented the threat Newton will with his legs.
The Panthers have possessed a quality two-back running attack with Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams over the past four years and Newton has stepped in to now create a three-headed hazard for defensive fronts. Carolina enters Sunday as the league’s sixth-rated run offense, averaging 135.3 yards per game, and is one of three teams gaining at least five yards per attempt. The trio is virtually neck-and-neck in terms of carries and yardage: Williams (108-540), Stewart (93-442) and Newton (86-464).
Last year’s Heisman Trophy winner from Auburn is playing a sizeable role in that production. Newton’s tucked 86 balls for 464 yards and has scored on 10 of those runs. His ninth touchdown rush broke Vince Young’s 2006 rookie quarterback record. Only Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy and Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson, both with 11, have found the end zone more often after taking handoffs.
“Definitely being a big guy like he is, he’s going to break a lot of tackles,” said Bucs rookie middle linebacker Mason Foster when asked about facing Newton. “Once he gets out in the open field, he’s a good athlete, so we’ve just got to swarm to the ball.”
Using recent memory and statistics as the tools for previewing Sunday’s game, Tampa Bay, to put it lightly, does not appear to matchup well in those aspects specified by Foster. Run defense and tackling in general have been lowlights of the 2011 campaign.
Following Chris Johnson and the Tennessee Titans rolling up the Bucs for 202 yards, Tampa Bay now ranks 30th in rushing defense (139.7 yards per game) with a line that continues to endure its fair share of bumps and bruises. Defensive end Michael Bennett (groin) did not play last Sunday in Tennessee and tackle Brian Price was knocked out of that game before halftime with an ankle injury.
Whatever player combos the Buccaneers go with in the box from play to play, head coach Raheem Morris spoke about Newton’s dual-threat game during a press conference this week.
“Cam has done a nice job this year. He’s playing very confidant. That’s the first thing you see on tape is how confident he’s playing and how well he’s playing. He’s going through his progressions really nicely and he’s running the ball well.
“They have some schematic runs that they have him run. He does a nice job of executing his play-fakes. In the red zone he really becomes dangerous because of his ability to run. He [makes you] account for an extra blocker. He’s a good football player and he’s going to present a lot of problems for a lot of different people.”
When asked if he thinks Tampa Bay needs to continually commit a player to spy Newton this Sunday, Foster said he feels discipline and gap integrity are the primary keys.
“Just keep rushing and keep a good pocket,” he said. “Try to keep him inside the pocket and not let him get out and make plays with his feet. So it’s not necessarily taking somebody out to spy him, but keeping a good pocket and keeping your rush lanes. They add a big challenge with doing zone reads and a lot of options for him to keep the ball. It’s kind of like a college offense with schemes and everything like that. We’ve just got to get to the ball and help everybody out.”
Being a fellow rookie, Foster added that one of the biggest challenges is reacting to changing looks in game-time situations. Doing a good job of altering defensive sets and play calling could help against Newton settling into a comfort zone.
“You can’t just do all of one of all of the other,” Foster said of either aggressively attacking Newton or more passively containing him. “You’ve got to mix it up and change the looks. He’s a first-year quarterback. Myself being a rookie, I know how tough it is to see different looks so you’ve got to throw different things at him and keep him guessing a little bit.”
Keeping the Panthers’ rushing triumvirate in check will give the Tampa Bay defense opportunities to exploit one of Newton’s problem areas this season. The rookie’s thrown 14 interceptions through 11 games and picks have come in bunches at times. Newton has had two three-interception games (Green Bay and Atlanta) and one four-interception game (Detroit). All of Newton’s 14 picks have come during Carolina’s eight losses and he averaged 38.5 pass attempts in those contests. During the Panthers’ three interception-less wins, Newton averaged over 10 fewer pass attempts (28.0).
Similar to how the Tampa Bay staff frequently states its preference to be a run-based offense, Carolina head coach Ron Rivera said that’s what the Panthers also intend to establish to be effective.
“I think the game dictates a lot of what happens, but I think at times we really don’t want to have to throw the ball thirty-five [or] forty times. We would much rather see [Newton] like we did last week with about twenty-five passes and give us the opportunity to run the ball about thirty-five times. That would obviously be more to our liking, but you’ve got to play the game as it goes.”
Newton echoed his coach’s approach to the game plan and reliance on the run during Wednesday teleconferences, but said that it’s on the players to make it happen.
“Having a lot of help from the run game takes a lot of pressure off me and the pass game, but it doesn’t matter what the coaches call. It’s our job as an offense and as individuals to know our assignments and execute the job."