Carolina Panthers

NFC Championship Game key: Who can handle the pressure?

Carolina’s Cam Newton, Arizona’s Carson Palmer.
Carolina’s Cam Newton, Arizona’s Carson Palmer. Charlotte Observer, Getty Photos

The last time Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer played in Charlotte, it did not end well.

Palmer, playing out the string for a bad Oakland Raiders team in 2012, left the Dec. 23 game in the first quarter after he was drilled in the back by then-Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy.

It was a vicious hit that left Palmer with broken ribs and a bruised lung, and resulted in a $25,000 fine for Hardy.

No one on the Carolina Panthers defense is suggesting they want to injure Palmer when he returns Sunday for the NFC Championship Game, but they’re not throwing down the welcome mat, either.

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In the first playoff matchup between Heisman-winning quarterbacks in NFL history, both defenses want to make sure Palmer and Cam Newton spend a lot of the game picking themselves up off the soft turf at Bank of America Stadium.

The Cardinals (14-3) blitz more than any team in the NFL, and they’re expected to throw all of them at Newton in the first NFC Championship Game played in Charlotte.

The Panthers (16-1) relied mainly on their front four to generate pressure during the regular season, but they figure to mix in their share of blitzes rather than allow Palmer time in the pocket to start picking apart their injury-depleted secondary.

“You don’t want to let him sit back there and have his time. That’s when he’s the most effective,” Panthers strong safety Roman Harper said. “We’re going to have to throw him off the timing or do something. We just can’t let him be comfortable.”

Whichever team is most effective at harassing the quarterback could determine who takes the Halas Trophy and represents the NFC in Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, Calif., on Feb. 7.

A blitz mentality

Arizona remained committed to the blitz this season under James Bettcher, who took over as defensive coordinator after Todd Bowles became the Jets’ coach. Bettcher kept the same 3-4 alignment that Bowles employed, as well as his penchant for sending pass rushers from every angle.

“They do a lot everything,” Panthers center Ryan Kalil said. “They do a good job of it, too.”

The Cardinals’ affinity for the blitz stems in part from their confidence in their defensive backs to play man coverage. Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson headlines a secondary that lost a key piece when safety Tyrann Mathieu went down with a season-ending injury in December.

But Panthers coach Ron Rivera said his receivers could wind up with some favorable matchups if Arizona’s blitzers aren’t able to get to Newton.

“If we pick it up there’s a chance for a big play. That’s the thing about blitzing: You can live or die with it,” Rivera said. “And if we’re doing our job and doing some things pretty well, we have an opportunity to make plays.”

Recognition is key

Newton, who is the favorite to win most valuable player, actually had a better completion percentage against the blitz (61.7) than on plays when he was not blitzed (59.6).

Offensive coordinator Mike Shula said Newton’s recognition of blitzes has improved in lockstep with his growth as a quarterback.

“When you have a really good feel for what you’re doing than maybe you did your first couple years of playing, you’re going to play faster. And you’re going to play with more poise, more confidence,” Shula said. “You’re going to get your eyes where they need to be, and if they’re where they need to be usually everything else follows.”

Shula said Newton’s success against the blitz also comes from his trust in the linemen and backs to pick it up, allowing him to “sit strong in the pocket.”

To Shula’s point, Newton deflected praise to his linemen this week when asked about his handling of blitzes this season.

“It’s not necessarily me that’s handling the blitz. It’s Ryan Kalil having the confidence, Trai (Turner) growing, Andrew Norwell growing,” Newton said. “I think Michael Oher brings a dynamic to this team that we may not have had prior to him. … So us picking up the blitz is not just me throwing hot or me checking, it’s the collective group effort that we’ve been able to handle. And it’s been showing and carrying over to gameday.”

Turner, a second-year guard who earned his first Pro Bowl berth this season, said identifying the Cardinals’ blitzes is as critical for the linemen as it is for Newton.

“Try to see it before it comes,” Turner said. “If you don’t see it before it comes, it gets a little harder.”

Tough to bring down

Veteran linebacker Dwight Freeney led Arizona with eight sacks despite not joining the Cardinals until October after mulling retirement.

Freeney said getting to Newton, who is 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, is one thing; getting him to the ground is another.

“It is definitely going to take a conscious effort from all of the guys going after him. Whether it be a four-man rush or five- or six- , whatever it is, because he is so elusive,” Freeney said. “The thing is that he can scramble. He is a strong guy so he can throw you off, so it will take two or three guys to take him down.”

Panthers tight end Ed Dickson said Newton can beat a blitz with his legs or his arm. Dickson said fullback Mike Tolbert’s 12-yard touchdown catch Dec. 13 at New Orleans came after Newton recognized a blitz and changed Tolbert’s assignment, having him go out in the flat rather than stay in and block.

“That was an A-plus play,” Dickson said. “A lot of people want to add more blockers when they’re blitzing. I say why not beat them where it hurts? Because they’re vulnerable (to certain passes) when they’re blitzing.”

Don’t sleep on Carson Palmer

No one will confuse Palmer, 36, with Newton in terms of his mobility.

But Palmer has been sacked 28 times this season, six fewer than Newton. Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly said Carolina’s defenders “can’t sleep” on Palmer.

“He’s got sneaky athleticism in the pocket,” Kuechly said. “He’s going to step up, he’s going to run, he’s going to spin, he’s going to create enough time to throw the ball. … He’s not a guy that’s just a statue. He can move around and create when he needs to.”

The Panthers blitzed Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson several times during the divisional round with mixed results. Second-year safety Tre Boston dropped Wilson for a big loss on a blitz.

But when Josh Norman came on a corner blitz during the second half, Wilson threw to the vacated area and hit Tyler Lockett for a 33-yard touchdown.

Despite the Panthers’ use of the blitz last weekend, Cardinals offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin thinks they’ll stick with what got them this far.

“At this point, why change? Do what you’ve been doing all year, so they’re pretty disruptive within the front four,” Goodwin said. “They do a great job of rotating the defensive linemen to try to keep those guys fresh. We’ve just got to try to wear them down.”

Panthers can’t give Palmer time

Rivera said the Packers were able to disrupt Palmer’s timing Saturday in Arizona’s 26-20 overtime win. Although Palmer wasn’t hit on his two interceptions against Green Bay, both picks came when he was pressured and threw off his back foot.

Given the offensive weapons Arizona has in receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown and running back David Johnson, the Panthers can’t give Palmer time.

Rivera says the interior rush that defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short (12sacks) provide is just as important as getting a rush from the defensive ends.

“It’s going to be kind of nice for the guys to face a guy who is kind of a pocket passer as opposed to some of the guys who move around all the time,” Rivera said. “But the biggest thing more so than anything else is getting a guy on the spot and not letting him be able to step into his throws.”

That’s the Panthers’ plan for Palmer, which likely looks a lot like what the Cardinals have in mind for Newton.

The quarterback who best handles the pressure could be Super Bowl-bound.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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