Falcons facing unpredictable Panthers, Cam Newton

Carolina’s offense has changed, but that QB is still a pain

Those danged Carolina Panthers have tweaked their overland attack, and when they visit Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday, the Falcons will know personal details about the trigger man, yet they’re not sure about details.

Like, what in the world Cam Newton will do?

This scrum between NFC rivals is unpredictable with shifting factors. The quarterback in the middle of invaders is like a Godfather in charge of  fret.

Beyond the Falcons opening division play without safety Keanu Neal and middle linebacker Deion Jones -- Pro Bowl alternates who’ve landed on injured reserve with knee and foot injuries -- nobody can be sure how Newton will be deployed by Carolina’s new offensive coordinator.

And he was a nightmare to begin with.

Norv Turner has folded the run-pass-option into the Panthers’ plan, yet there’s only one game worth of real tape in for the Falcons to review.

Oh, and when Carolina beat Dallas 16-8 on Sunday, Newton broke off a few designed runs that had nothing to do with the RPO, or the longer-standing read-option. And the Cowboys were caught completely unaware as he bootlegged for big yards several times while rushing 13 times for 58 yards and a touchdown.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn doesn’t know how, but he kind of knows what may happen.

“I am expecting that ... ” Quinn said of Newton being featured differently as a runner. “When he gets out on the edge, he’s a running back and a big one. So, I anticipate that part of his game because that adds another element to their offense.”

Yeah, you can kind of plan on Newton running the ball against his hometown NFL team.

The Westlake High School graduate is one of the more prolific rushing quarterbacks in NFL history.

He holds the NFL record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 55, and he’s third in career rushing yardage from his position. His 4,378 yards trail only Michael Vick (6,109) and Randall Cunningham (4,928).

And he runs more against the Falcons than just about everybody else. Newton has a career average of 39.8 rushing yards per game over 109 starts.

Against the Falcons, he’s averaged 51.5. He blew up the Falcons last season in Carolina, rushing nine times for 86 yards and a touchdown in a 20-17 win.

The Caminator is a pain in the tail feathers for the Falcons.

“He can run, and he’s hard to tackle,” said cornerback Desmond Trufant, who probably hopes he won’t encounter the 6-foot-5, 245-pounder in person. “He’s big. ... We’ve just got to be disciplined, run to him and swarm the ball and wrap him up. Just keep everything in front of us.”

And maybe keep somebody, anybody, outside.

Newton’s top rushing plays against the Cowboys came when the Panthers went read-option or perhaps RPO one direction, and he reversed out/bootlegged and took off for big yardage the other way.

Shockingly, at least in the first half, Dallas seemed to be caught off guard by those plays, as if, you know, Newton might not be a run threat.

The Cowboys’ backside defenders, chiefly the force men -- the outside linebacker and defensive end away from the start of the play -- crashed so hard toward the original show to leave an empty backside field in which to gallop like a horse.

When Newton opted not to hand off to the running back, run that direction, nor throw a short pass and instead reverse out, he had nothing but green grass in front of him.

That looks like Turner’s twist to the RPO, not that he has no experience. He sure didn’t put Troy Aikman in RPO situations while coordinating the Cowboys’ Super Bowl run in the mid-1990s, but he’s adaptive. He built in some soft RPO stuff with former Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater while he was in Minnesota.

Where last Thursday Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles several times started a similar RPO action and either handed off, put on the brakes to run for short yardage up the middle, or threw to the same side or the other direction, Newton ran a few times completely the other direction.

His receivers on that side went vertical to pull defenders downfield, which is different than when Foles threw back cross-grain to backside receivers on short slant or drag routes toward the middle of the field.

That’s an RPO baseline.

After a little bit of tape study Monday, Falcons nickel back Brian Poole said, “It’s somewhat the same. It’s just that Cam is the third option. Cam is definitely more of an option to run than Foles was.”

Newton creates new defensive concepts even though his career passing numbers are modest.

In seven NFL seasons, he’s thrown for 4,000 or more yards just once, in his NFL Rookie of the Year season of 2011 before people began defending his run game. His career completion percentage of 58.6 is modest.

There’s plenty of arm strength in that man, although his average accuracy can be a Carolina slog.

The Panthers have added speed to their passing game by acquiring through trade Philadelphia’s Torrey Smith and by drafting former Maryland wideout D.J. Moore in the first round.

Yet there was little evidence of a downfield passing mindset against the Cowboys, when Newton completed 17 of 26 passes for 161 yards and a long completion of 19.

The Falcons have failed and succeeded against the Panthers and Newton in multiple ways.

He ran three times for just four yards in Charlotte early in 2015, when the Panthers smoked the Falcons 38-0 on their way to the Super Bowl. But he completed 15 of 21 yards for 265 yards and three touchdowns. His passer rating of 153.3 in that one was by far his best ever against the Falcons.

Then again, when the Panthers crushed the Falcons 34-3 near the end of the 2014 season that ended the tenure of former head coach Mike Smith, he did a little, not a lot, of everything. Newton completed 10 of 16 passes for 114 yards and a score, and rushed seven times for 46 and a TD.

The Falcons late in 2015 – Newton’s MVP season – kept the Panthers from going to the Super Bowl undefeated.

Just a couple of weeks after the Falcons were shutout and humiliated in Charlotte, the Falcons won 20-13 in the Georgia Dome by checking Newton on both sides of the offensive coin.

He completed 17 of 30 passes for a very modest 142 yards and rushed seven times for 46 yards and a score.

See a pattern?

No, you don’t. There isn’t one.

And Turner’s tweaks to the Carolina offense, not to mention the fact there’s not very much of that on tape, and still plenty to be seen.

If there’s one thing the Falcons know, it’s that Newton can be a handful, or two, and they can’t carry former game plans forward with Carolina’s changes.

“I would say that’s correct,” Quinn said. “You can’t do the same thing, I agree.”

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