I am going to preface this post be declaring that I am a huge fan of Cam Newton. I am merely writing this piece so as to get a closer view as to how teams will try and stop Cam in the coming season as well as in the future.
As a Rookie last season, Cam Newton discombobulated NFL Defenses. Under the direction of QB Coach Mike Shula, and Offensive Coordinator Rob Chudzinski, as well as assists from Quarterback Guru George Whitfield and former Panthers QB Chris Weinke, Cam Newton surprised hordes of nay-saysers and NFL Analysts with his record setting rookie season. Cam would finish the season with 4,051 Passing Yards, 706 Rushing Yards, 35 total TD's, and 14 INT's with a 60.0% Completion Percentage, culminating with an 84.5 Passer Rating. At times during the season it looked nearly impossible for any opposing defense to stop or even slow down the Rookie Quarterback; Running and Passing roughshod over NFL Defenses just as he did in the Collegiate Ranks.
With the arrival of Ron Rivera and his staff the Panthers instituted the Air Coryell offense. The Air Coryell is a vertical attack offense, based off of deep passing routes, and an effective run game in order to open up the deep pass and a variety of other big plays. The Panthers new offense is operated under the watchful eye of Offensive Coordinator Rob Chudzinski, the long time TE's Coach and Coordinator of the Miami Hurricanes, Cleveland Browns, and San Diego Super Chargers. Coming into the season Chudzinski was charged with installing a high octane attack on one of the most offensively challenged teams in NFL History. In addition, Chudzinski was also charged with curtailing the offense to the special skills of the aforementioned Rookie QB Cam Newton.
Not only did Rob Chudzinski succeed in this endeavor, he and his quarterback absolutely rewrote the book on how the QB Position is to be played. The Panthers Offense would end the 2011 NFL Season as the 7th Overall Offense, accumulating 389 Yards per game, along with 25.4 Points per contest. However, with a full offseason of planning and a whole season of game tape, 13 NFL Defensive Coordinators will be creating gameplans in order to stop Cam Newton and the high powered Panthers Offense.
In the Air Coryell Offense, The Panthers utilize a lot of deep routes that are designed to stretch the field and spread out the defense. For the most part, the only deep threat that the offense consistently relied on was Steve Smith. As the season wore on, and defenses respected Cam Newton's arm, The Panthers made further use of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart both in the pass offense as well as the rush offense. The Running Backs were used heavily in screen passes and checkdown passes that specialized in getting the skilled runners into space. Also heavily featured in the offense are the TE's, lead by Greg Olsen. The Panthers employed many 2 Tight End sets, opting to leave a safety blanket for the Rookie, as well as create a match up problem against opposing Linebackers. However, one of the most effective weapons for the Panthers' Offenses was the Option Read set in which the Panthers superior athleticism and skill caught defenses in a bind.
Cam Newton is a big Quarterback. Measuring in around 6'6 250 pounds, Cam Newton is larger than most Linebackers in the NFL. His stature makes him hard to bring down by a safety or a cornerback, and his strength makes an arm tackle a futile effort. Newton is also extremely agile and quick, registering a 4.59 40 yard dash at the 2011 NFL Combine. His athleticism and size beget an athletic freak, capable of extending plays on his feet, or scrambling in order to pick up a first down. Newton is also blessed with a very strong arm, capable of completing deep passes.
While Cam Newton is an extremely athletic Quarterback, his mechanics inside the pocket are not polished. Newton does not consistently set his feet on throws, as such, Cam will occasionally overthrow Wide Receivers by laughable margins. Newton primarily struggles with medium accuracy, but will often throw balls that put his receivers in bad positions on screens or checkdowns. Rarely throws the ball away; Under intense pressure, Newton will try to extend the play, sometimes at the detriment of his own health. Will ejaculate inadvisable balls into bad situations, i.e. in the process of being sacked, and into double coverage more often than not resulting in a turnover. Exhibits great pocket poise, standing strong in the pocket in the face of blitzes. Newton has solid accuracy on deep throws. Has experienced a plethora of blitz types and strengths.
X's and O's
Throughout the course of the 2011 Season, the Panthers most common formation was the 21 (2 TE, 1 RB) Shotgun formation with two wideouts spread out wide. The Panthers would maneuver the TE's around the formation so as to create confusion and favorable match ups for Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen. The Panthers could run a myriad of plays from this formation.
Team Defense wise, in order to best succeed against the Panthers, a team would require Athletic Linebackers that are capable of matching up with the Panthers' Tight Ends as well as containing Newton, Physical Corners in order to match up against the Panthers' possession receivers, Experienced Safeties to read Cam and anticipate the play call, and a good pass rush so as to overwhelm the Panthers' Offensive Line and reduce the amount of time Cam Newton has to look downfield. As far as schemes go, a 3-4 might be the most effective against the Panthers. The traditional Bum Phillips 3-4 can mask the origin of blitzes and places more athletes on the field than a traditional 4-3, allowing the defense to match up with the Panthers' Athletes.
In this scenario, the defensive alignment most suited for the task of retarding the Panthers' Offense is the 4-3 Defense, along with implementations of the 4-2-5 in order to matchup in obvious passing scenarios. I would line up the Defensive Line in the traditional one gap alignment, The Will Linebacker would be in charge of spying on Cam, similar to what the Titans did last season, while the Sam Linebacker would either blitz the QB or drop into coverage in the flat. In addition, I would have the Mike Linebacker blitz around 70-80% of the plays in order to keep Cam off balance and collapse the pocket. However, as a wrinkle, I would put the Strong Safety in the box on nearly every down in order to match up with the TE. Furthermore, I would line the Free Safety up top, over Steve Smith, the only true threat of the WR Corps. With Steve Smith in hand, and Greg Olsen/Jeremy Shockey/Gary Barnridge matched against a safety, and the check down accounted for, I would match up my #2 Corner against the Panthers #2 WR, allowing him to play man to man coverage against the less potent wideout. I would constantly change up the source of the blitzes, in order to keep Newton guessing as to where and how strong the blitz will be. By sending 5-6 defenders blitzing every down, the defense will keep Cam Newton off balance, and not allow him time to set his feet and throw a well calculated ball. The Defense will also force a player like Brandon Lafell or Legedu Naanee beat us instead of Steve Smith.
If the Defense can get enough pressure on Cam, they can force him to make an ill-advised throw into the waiting arms of the secondary. Moreover, If the Panthers begin to run the ball with authority, I would adopt the 46 Defensive Alignment, in which 4 DL, 4 LB's, lineup in prevention of the run, whilst 2 CB's and 1 FS are arrayed in a zone against the pass. An effective four man pass rush will ultimately allow the Defense to drop more defenders back into coverage, making the windows even more tighter, and the room for error even more miniscule.
The Panthers Offense cannot become content with last years success. While my gameplan may be imperfect in a few areas, Opposing Defensive Coordinators have 6 more months until Opening Weekend in September, and while Rob Chudzinski may work nonstop in order to create more schemes and plays in order to grind out points, once one opposing DC finds the answer to stopping the Panthers Offense, the book will be out on how to defeat Cam Newton and the Panthers' Air Coryell Offensive. Finding a Deep Threat to play opposite Steve Smith is one potential upgrade, another being the improvement of the Offensive Line, blocking in front of Cam Newton. However, In my opinion, the most critical improvement the Panthers need to make this offseason is at the Quarterback Position; Cam has to improve from where he ended last year, in areas of weakness, a la Mechanics, Blitz Recognition, and footwork. If Cam progresses moving into next season, it will be exponentially more difficult for opposing defenses to slow down the Panthers in 2012.