Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has had at least 10 carries in four of his five career playoff games, and indications are Sunday will make five out of six.
Newton faces a Denver Broncos team in Super Bowl 50 that hasn’t played many mobile quarterbacks this season and uses a man-to-man pass defense that could make them susceptible to quarterback runs.
There, of course, is concern with running your quarterback, though. One hit and he could be out of the game.
But the concerns the Panthers have had for Newton running the ball over the years don’t necessarily apply this week. There is no next week.
“I think for the most part, the approach has to be something like that,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “I think we have to understand what the situations and circumstances are within the game. It’s situational football now, from here on out. It is no holds barred. There really is no next game.
“The approach has to be we’re willing to do things we need to do. We’ll have him do things that we want him to do for us and give us the best opportunity to win.”
The problem Newton presents seems simple in basic football terms. Usually defenses don’t have to account for the threat of the quarterback running, so they can essentially play defense 11-on-10. The Broncos, under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, play a lot of man coverage.
So when a mobile, dual-threat quarterback is introduced, that changes the math. It’s 11-on-11, and if the defense plays man-to-man coverage, some defenders will have their backs turned to a quarterback who could already be past the line of scrimmage running the ball.
Broncos will counter
But the Broncos aren’t crazy. They’ll have to be smart about their man coverages and leaving the middle of the field open for rushing lanes.
The thing that separates these Broncos from most teams – and what you can’t account for on paper – is the athleticism of outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller.
“I don’t necessarily see them playing all man coverage. They’re going to mix it up,” Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “They’ve got guys that are fast that can also account for him, that could rush the passer and then account for him if he tries to take off.
“He takes a lot of pride in sitting in the pocket and trying to diagnose the defense and find the right receiver. Obviously you have to do it fast against this defense. His ability to run the football does, hopefully for us, presents a problem for anyone we’re playing.”
A frequent rusher
The Panthers are 16-3-1 in the regular season when Newton rushes 10 times or more, and 2-2 in the postseason. His 132 rushing attempts this season – which includes kneel downs, sneaks, designed runs, zone-read and everything else – were a career high and the second-most by a quarterback in the Super Bowl era.
“It’s a fine line. It really is. It’s something that we’ve talked about from the time we drafted him to every game since then,” Shula said. “Just hey, what’s enough? What’s not enough? What’s too much?
“He’d carry 20 times a game. He loves carrying the football and he loves throwing the football too. You have to try to monitor it, but then also design what you’re doing where it’s going to keep him out of harms way as much as possible.”
Shula noted how Newton does a good job of avoiding unnecessary hits, though he did take one late in the season against New Orleans at the goal line.
Newton has talked before about this being football and not ballet, and that he knows he’s going to take hits.
“At the end of the day, we’re football players. We need to be treated as such,” Newton said. “If a person can play football, pick him not just because he can run the ball or throw, this, that and the third.
“For us, making plays, you can’t coach that, so if you’ve got a guy that’s used to having that label of being a playmaker, it’s easy for that person to thrive in moments, and I don’t think that gets mentioned enough.”