How the Eagles are preparing for dynamic Panthers quarterback Cam Newton
Cam Newton has thrown three interceptions in each of his last three encounters with the Eagles, but that isn't the entire story.
From the questions this week about how in the world the Eagles are going to deal with Cam Newton, you would think Newton suddenly materialized in the Panthers' huddle a few weeks ago, all 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds (or more) of him, leaving opponents slack-jawed and grasping for answers.
But Newton is 29 now, and Sunday will be the fifth time the Eagles have faced him, through the Andy Reid, Chip Kelly and Doug Pederson regimes. They've won two, lost two. They've intercepted the Carolina Panthers' quarterback nine times in the last three meetings (one of which he still managed to win).
Last year, the Eagles jumped up the list of contenders toward the Super Bowl they would eventually win when they flew to Charlotte on three days' rest and defeated the Panthers, 28-23. That week in practice, the defense said practice squad wide receiver Greg Ward Jr., who'd been a college quarterback at Houston, gave a good look as the scout team Newton. This week, with Ward no longer here, that duty fell to Braxton Miller, another quarterback (Ohio State) turned practice squad wideout.
Miller is 6-1, 215. How did he manage to approximate Newton?
"I just be myself … Get the ball in my hands, make plays, give a good look to the defense. Be explosive," said Miller, who said he tried to read the defensive end the way Newton would on option plays.
Miller said he didn't feel the need to give the defense a look at Newton's "Superman" celebration.
"That's Cam's swag. I don't want to steal his swag," Miller said. "I'm me, man. I put my own little juice on it."
The Panthers rank fourth in the NFL in rushing, their attack led by Christian McCaffrey (71 carries, 349 yards, 4.9 yards per carry) and Newton (45 carries, 208 yards, 4.6 yards per carry). The Panthers design runs for their QB, like the Tennessee Titans and Marcus Mariota, who came back from a 17-3 third-quarter deficit to beat the Eagles in overtime, 26-23, on Sept. 30.
Defensive end Brandon Graham said it makes sense to him for the Panthers to use the 2015 NFL MVP as a short-yardage battering ram.
"I'd put my money on him if I needed a short-yardage play," Graham said.
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Defensive end Chris Long said you can beat the Panthers "If you can take care of the quarterback run. And you've got to hit him. He's a tough guy, and he's going to stand in there, he's a big target, but anybody that gets hit a lot, it eventually affects the game."
Long is listed at 6-3, 270. He agreed that defensive ends aren't accustomed to picking on someone their own size.
"I think last year I hit him and pulled him down on me, and he either bruised or cracked a rib. That's a 260-pound guy. He's a big dude, man," Long said.
This is the year of roughing the passer in the NFL, which might be especially annoying when the passer is capable of roughing you.
"Now with the target shrinking, you wonder where do you hit somebody the size of you, but you've got to do it, and you've got to get a bunch of hats to the ball," Long said.
Newton has only been sacked eight times in five games, but being able to buy time in the pocket or earn yardage with his legs hasn't led to exceptional passing success. He has nine touchdown passes and four interceptions, and is netting a middling 6.81 yards per pass attempt.
Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox identified what he said was the key to the 2017 victory.
"We just came out on fire. We made him uncomfortable in the pocket. The game last year, we got after him really good with a four-man rush, with the guys up front," Cox said. "That's one of the games that we dominated … We need to do that on Sunday. Be disruptive. Hit him early and kind of just get him moving around in the pocket."
Corner Rasul Douglas was a beneficiary of the pressure Cox and his linemates were able to bring.
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"Fletch, I think he crushed the guard or maybe center, hit Cam, I got a pick," Douglas recalled.
Douglas said dealing with Newton coming at you in the open field is no joke.
"Some quarterbacks, you don't have to hit 'em, they'll give themselves up," Douglas said. "Cam, he's going to look for it. He's sizing you up just like you're sizing him up."
The Eagles' secondary is banged up this week, safety Rodney McLeod down for the duration with a knee injury, nickel corner Sidney Jones out Sunday and "week-to-week" with a hamstring he pulled against the Giants. Rookie Avonte Maddox seems destined to start in McLeod's spot again, and to move into Jones' spot for the nickel. When Maddox moves down, there's a good chance Tre Sullivan or Deoindre' Hall will come in at safety, though Douglas got emergency snaps there against the Giants. Veteran safety Corey Graham remains sidelined with a hamstring injury.
"We'll be all right, though," Douglas said. "I think we've got enough guys to do what we've got to do."
Brandon Graham said it's important for defenders to realize that despite the injuries, they can't worry about trying to cover for teammates, against a team that likes to spread out and misdirect the defense. Everyone must stay focused on their gap, their coverage.
"They give you a bunch of eye candy to mess your eyes up a little bit, so you just gotta focus on doing your job this week," Graham said. "All they're looking for is somebody not doing their job and that's how they get you … That's when Cam gets out."
Cam Newton vs. the Eagles, through the years:
Nov. 26, 2012: Panthers 30, Eagles 22, on Monday Night Football at the Linc. Newton 18 for 28, 306 yards, 2 touchdowns, no interceptions, 125.0 passer rating. Longest gain: 55 yards. Also 14 carries, 52 yards, and two more touchdowns with his legs.
Nov. 10, 2014: Eagles 45, Panthers 21, also on Monday Night Football at the Linc. Newton, hobbled by a bad ankle, was sacked nine times, 3.5 of them by Connor Barwin, and he carried just twice, for six yards. He went 25 for 40 for 306 yards, 2 TDs and 3 INTs, 71.5 passer rating, and also lost a fumble. Longest gain was 40 yards. The Eagles came out of the game 7-2, the high-water mark of the Chip Kelly regime, making Kelly 17-8 in his first 25 games. He then went 9-13 before being fired with a game left in the 2015 season.
Oct. 25, 2015: Panthers 27, Eagles 16, at Carolina. En route to winning the league MVP award and carrying the Panthers to a 15-1 record, Newton completed 14 of 24 passes for 197 yards, a TD and 3 INTs, for a 59.2 passer rating. Longest gain was 28 yards. He carried four times for 20 yards.
Oct. 12, 2017: Eagles 28, Panthers 23, at Carolina. Newton ran 11 times for 71 yards and a touchdown, but mistakes killed him and the Panthers. Newton was 28 for 52 for 239 yards, a TD and 3 INTs, for a 48.5 passer rating. His longest completion was for 20 yards.