Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton didn’t want to revisit his 0-4 history against the Seattle Seahawks. He said whatever happened in the past has no bearing on the future.
But one of the most dangerous and dynamic rushing quarterbacks in NFL history has struggled on the ground against the Seahawks’ defense every time he’s faced them.
Newton says this is a new year, and he has said he’s not the same quarterback.
Sunday against Seattle (2-3), he gets a chance to prove it.
“They’re a pretty good team,” Newton said, offering the most praise for the two-time NFC champions that he would all of Wednesday. “They’ve been extremely successful in the postseason these past couple of years, but yet those are old statistics. I’m eager to face them on Sunday. The stats say one thing, but those are old things that I refuse to dwell on.”
The factors behind the stats, however, show why Seattle has been the Kryptonite to Newton’s Superman.
Here’s a look at two big challenges facing the Panthers:
Seattle vs. the read option
What the numbers show: Newton averages nearly 42 rushing yards per game in his career, and 5.4 yards per carry. In his four games against the Seahawks, though, he has rushed 35 times for 141 yards, an average of 35 yards per game and 4.0 per carry.
Why Seattle is a challenge: The Seahawks defense is, in essence, built to slow a running quarterback. Seattle has athletic defensive ends and fast linebackers who can keep Newton contained or chase him down on the outside.
That has mitigated the effectiveness of Carolina’s read option, a rushing scheme that usually pits a quarterback against an edge defender.
Seattle’s defense also sees a lot of read option because the Seahawks offense runs it, and the Panthers think that helps Seattle. Quarterback Russell Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch run it well, which has helped Seattle be one of the best rushing teams in the league in recent years.
“I think they’re one of the few teams that use it as much as we do,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “They’re used to seeing it. It forces us to try to do other things or put a wrinkle in here or there.
“A big part of it is they do it, they have a quarterback that’s very good at doing it so you see it all during training camp when they’re competing against each other.”
Why Sunday could be different: Two of the four games Newton has played against Seattle came last year, when Newton was hampered by injuries – first recovering from ankle surgery, then cracked ribs and later a fractured back. That kept the Panthers from having full use of their running playbook.
This year, a healthy Newton has shown he’s able to get to the edge against defenders.
In the Week 2 win against Houston, Newton pulled the ball out of Mike Tolbert’s chest on a read option when the Texans stacked eight defenders in the box, and he went one-on-one against a linebacker. Newton juked one way, went to his right, hit the corner and shrugged off a tackle for a 19-yard gain.
Seattle vs. a scrambling quarterback
What the numbers show: Newton has the ability to hold the ball long enough to get defensive backs playing man-to-man to turn their heads, allowing him to run for several yards before they’re aware he’s even running.
Those kinds of plays have helped Newton be a remarkably effective runner this season – and his entire career.
Since Newton entered the league, he has gotten a first down on 41 percent of his rushing attempts. Wilson, who came into the league a year later in 2012, is the second-closest quarterback at 33.9 percent.
Newton leads the NFL this season with 39.5 percent of his runs going for first downs – and if you subtract his six kneel downs, it’s 45.9 percent.
Why Seattle is a challenge: In the Week 1 win in Jacksonville, Newton waited out a double blitz on third-and-8 to step up in the pocket and take off. Three defensive backs and a linebacker were covering the four receivers, leaving a single safety more than 20 yards away.
By the time one defensive back turned around, Newton was already nearing the first-down marker and getting into his slide.
But Seattle’s defense isn’t like most defenses. The Seahawks have talented cover corners in Richard Sherman and Cary Williams, which allows them to disguise their coverages effectively. They can play man-to-man on one side of the field and zone on the other. Or make a zone coverage to look like a man-to-man.
That means that even if Newton avoids their talented edge rushers and speedy linebackers, he still has to face defensive backs who may never have turned their heads.
On Newton’s 35 rushes against the Seahawks, he’s only converted first downs on 25.7 percent of them – well below his career average.
“Seattle plays with great vision. That’s one of the things you have to give them credit for,” Rivera said. “Those guys on defense play with great vision and you see them all breaking and getting involved. Their corners do a nice job coming up playing physical. A lot of corners in the league aren’t as physical. But their corners don’t shy away from the contact with the opportunity to get involved in a play.”
Why Sunday could be different: Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula is preaching patience and sound decision-making this week as the Panthers plan for a defense that has stymied them four times in three seasons.
“Whether or not it’s in the passing game or him running the football or the zone read stuff, you’ve just got to make sound decisions and not try to do too much,” Shula said.
Newton said he’ll be making those decisions on the fly.
“I pretty much take what the defense gives me. It’s never predetermined,” Newton said. “It’s always trying to keep those chains moving forward. It’s a gift and a curse at times.
There are times when you run and you’re not supposed to run and then you get sacked or you miss a guy who’s running wide open.
“But it’s just being patient enough to know when there are lanes for me to take off and knowing when to be patient in the pocket and take advantage of the offensive line battling and creating time for me to throw the ball down the field.”
A bad choice by Newton will play into the Seahawks’ hands.
“That’s what they thrive on – when teams try to do too much, regardless run or pass,” Shula said. “And the next thing you know you turn the ball over.”