The Saints are 3-1 but it’s the 1-3 Panthers creating most of the chatter. Or, Cam Newton creating the chatter. Through a quarter of his rookie season, the No. 1 overall pick is, in a word, sensational. But obviously not perfect. The Panthers are still dwelling in the basement of the NFC South.
Here’s a comprehensive look at Newton and his club as they head into their first divisional showdown of the season.
1. How good is he, really?
Through four games, Newton has far exceeded all expectations. Remarkably, this includes expectations about his physical talents. We knew the 6’5”, 245-pound Auburn Tiger was an athletic monster, but rarely are quarterbacks still athletic monsters once they reach the NFL. Newton has been a productive runner, both with power and speed.
He’s a poor man’s Vick when it comes to eluding tacklers and a poor man’s Roethlisberger when it comes to shedding them. That’s a rich combination considering no other quarterback truly exhibits any of these traits (save for maybe Josh Freeman shedding defenders).
Most impressive, however, is that Newton has not leaned on his athleticism. Operating almost exclusively out of shotguns, he’s been a willing and poised statuesque passer who willingly works through his progressions from the pocket. His decisions are usually capped off by a bullet either downfield, outside the numbers (he has the uncanny arm strength to stretch the field both horizontally and vertically) or, if need be, underneath.
For the most part, Newton’s decisions have been good. He has faced an aggressive blitzing defense in Arizona, a classic 3-4 press defense in Green Bay (playing without Tramon Williams, the Packers kept Charles Woodson outside and blitzed far less often than usual that game) and, most recently, a classic Cover 2 defense in Chicago. He posted a legit 370-plus yards passing against all three of them.
The proof that it’s not all daisies and roses is that Newton also threw crucial interceptions in all three games and came away with a loss. He’s still a rookie and still prone to the occasional blunder. The blunders have been far less frequent than anyone expected, but they’ve been costly nevertheless.
2. Panthers dual tight ends
We assumed that with tight ends Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen, Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski would craft a dink-and-dunk, run-first system. Indeed, the Panthers have kept two tight ends on the field a majority of the time, but often, at least one of them (usually Olsen) has split out, serving essentially as a No. 3 receiver.
This poses serious personnel issues for defenses. Leave your base three-linebacker unit on the field and risk getting burned through the air (Shockey and Olsen have been superb downfield route runners the first four weeks). Use your nickel personnel and you risk getting run on by a team that always has a top-10 running back on the field.
The Saints are one of the few defenses that have an answer for this: strong safety Roman Harper. He is their second best run defender (behind Jonathan Vilma) and a demon in the box. He’s versatile enough to play press man coverage (he’s not particularly good at it, but Gregg Williams feels comfortable using him sporadically in this capacity) or blitz (3.5 sacks on the season).
Expect the Panthers in Week 5 to continue to be pass-first with their tight ends. And expect the Saints to not simply react to this, but rather, to attack by changing up what they do with Harper throughout the game in order to get Newton thinking.
3. Running Impact
Newton is the first quarterback since Vick to pose a veritable threat as a runner (Vince Young can’t be counted as a running threat quarterback because he was such a limited passer that defenses could get away with putting nine in the box against him; not a chance that happens against Newton). Having a running threat under center does wonders for your rushing attack.
The Panthers have all the resources to pound teams on the ground – DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are an excellent duo, center Ryan Kalil can lock defenders at both the first and second level, left tackle Jordan Gross is a Pro Bowler and right tackle Jeff Otah flashed his old power against Chicago last week. But for whatever reason, Chudzinski has not gone in that direction. Carolina is averaging 25.5 rushing attempts per game, tied for 18th in the NFL.
Chudzinski would be wise to change this. The threat that Newton poses really opens things up. We saw this on the third play of the game against Chicago last week:
4. What Newton will see from Saints D
The Saints have one of the most aggressive defenses in football – both in terms of execution and presnap disguise. That has a lot to do with the trust Gregg Williams has in his secondary. Jabari Greer is one of the best ball-man corners in the game. Patrick Robinson had a rough Week 1 at Green Bay but has come on the last few outings (he was phenomenal at Jacksonville).
Playmaker Tracy Porter was eased back into action last week – he missed two games with a calf injury – and should see more snaps Sunday. When you factor in free safety Malcom Jenkins’ range, the Saints clearly have the resources to handle a Panthers’ wide receiving corps that is underwhelming outside of Steve Smith.
Dealing with the tight ends might be an issue, but Roman Harper’s versatility could cause Newton to question that matchup at times. How will Newton react when he sees Harper leave Olsen or Shockey and blitz? The simple answer would be, “He’ll throw to Olsen or Shockey”. But if you and I can predict this, so can Gregg Williams.
The Saints are one of the best green dog blitzing defenses in the league. (A green dog blitz is when a linebacker has a running back man-to-man, sees that the running back is staying in to pass protect and so he goes after the quarterback in response.) These blitzes can be hard to recognize because they come unexpectedly and late in the action.
When blitzing is not involved, Carolina’s offensive line can contain a Saints pass-rush that has been hit-or-miss early this season (the return of end Will Smith certainly helps). Thus, expect Gregg Williams to go after Newton and get him guessing before the snap. Many of Williams’ blitzes come out of nickel personnel packages. The Saints used their nickel later in the game against the Texans to counter the receiving impact of Houston’s two tight ends (Owen Daniels and James Casey). Don’t be surprised if they refer to their nickel early against the Panthers’ two-tight end offense.
5. The other side of the ball
The Saints have remade their offense this season. It now runs through Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham. Sproles has been better for the Saints than Reggie Bush ever was (much better, in fact). That could be in part because Sproles doesn’t yet draw the attention that Bush drew. But more than anything, it’s because he has lightning quick feet and an understanding for how to create and exploit spacing in both the run and pass game.
Graham is the dynamic athlete we all knew he’d be after his 2010 debut. It just so happens that the ex-power forward is developing much quicker than expected. He’s a mismatch for any linebacker, has the size to out-position defensive backs and has better hands than Robert Meachem (who is now the fourth option in this pass offense, behind Sproles, Graham and, when healthy, Marques Colston).
Panthers strong safety Charles Godfrey has been stellar in coverage this season and can compete with Graham, but the Panther linebackers (who are really missing Jon Beason) will have trouble with Sproles. Carolina’s best hope is to get pressure on Brees early in the down.
Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are capable of embarrassing New Orleans’ athletic but grossly unreliable tackles Jermon Bushrod and Charles Brown. But Brees knows this and is also capable of adjusting.
So who will win? Check our Week 5 NFL expert picks for all the games.
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