CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cam Newton has a big arm, and he likes to use it.
In the Panthers’ first five games this year, Newton and his teammates had 17 pass plays of 20 yards or more, which was the sixth most in the league.
Newton averaged 10.9 yards per attempt in a 33-30 win over the Patriots two weeks ago and 10.8 in a 27-24 win over the Lions last Sunday.
But if the guy was going to beat the Eagles Thursday night, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was determined to make him do it in small bites.
Schwartz’s game plan was to take away the deep ball and make Newton dink and dunk his way down the Bank of America Stadium field.
If Newton could do that and avoid turnovers and put up enough points to win, more power to him. If he couldn’t, there was a good chance the Eagles would be taking a 5-1 record along with them when they boarded their charter for the return trip to Philadelphia.
“That’s our whole game plan,” rookie cornerback Rasul Douglas said after the Eagles’ impressive 28-23 win over the Panthers. “Be aggressive but don’t give up the deep ball. Make a team drive 80 yards, 90 yards. Don’t let them get it all in one play.”
That strategy has had mixed results this season. But it worked to perfection against Newton and the Panthers.
With All-Pro defensive tackle Fletcher Cox back in the lineup after missing two games with a calf strain, the Eagles were able to get constant pressure on Newton and force him to get the ball out faster than he wanted, which often led to costly mistakes.
Meanwhile, Douglas and the rest of the secondary kept the Panthers’ receivers in front of them and used sure tackling honed by daily practice drills to limit their yards after the catch.
Newton, who had just 14 incompletions in 62 attempts against the Patriots and the Lions, was 28-for-52 against the Eagles. He averaged a puny 4.6 yards per attempt and threw three interceptions, all of them on third down.
“We should’ve had more,” said safety Malcolm Jenkins, referring to a third-quarter interception by Rodney McLeod that was voided by a sketchy pass-interference call on cornerback Jalen Mills and a dropped fourth-quarter interception by Douglas on a deep ball for Devin Funchess. “Takeaways are one thing we want to be great at and lead the league in.”
The Eagles turned two of their three picks into touchdowns. On a third-and-5 play in the second quarter, Cox hit Newton just as he was releasing the ball. It floated into the hands of an opportunistic Douglas, who returned it 7 yards to the Carolina 12.
It took the offense seven plays to travel those 12 yards, but the Eagles finally got it into the end zone when Carson Wentz connected with Zach Ertz for one of his two touchdown catches.
In the third quarter, a third-and-12 screen to Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart backfired when he couldn’t control the ball, and an alert Patrick Robinson came up with it. Two plays later, Wentz teamed up with Ertz again on a 17-yard touchdown pass.
“I knew the screen was coming, so I jumped outside,” Robinson said. “But 10 [receiver Curtis Samuel] got a hand on me and pushed me. As soon as I turned around, I felt Stewart and he dropped [the ball] and it just fell into my hands.”
The Eagles’ third and final interception — by Mills — thwarted a potential go-ahead scoring drive by the Panthers. Newton overthrew Russell Shepard on a third-and-10 play from the Philadelphia 41 and Mills came up with it.
Newton didn’t complete a single pass longer than 20 yards Thursday night. Just six of his 28 completions were for 13 yards or more.
Kelvin Benjamin, who was averaging 16.0 yards per catch coming into the game, caught nine passes against the Eagles, but just one of them was longer than 13 yards. Funchess was targeted nine times but had just three catches for 36 yards.
“We want to keep the ball in front of us, first and foremost,” said Jenkins. “And then, when they do catch it in front of us, just tackle them.
“There are times when you’ll see guys challenging people on underneath routes. But for the most part, we want to keep the ball in front of us. Because we don’t believe teams can dink and dunk us all the way down the field.
“As long as we continue to keep that big play off of us and make teams earn it, we’ll be fine.”
Several of the quarterbacks the Eagles have faced this season — Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Alex Smith — are adept at countering a fierce pass rush by getting the ball out quickly. But that’s not really Newton’s forte.
“We forced him to be a quarterback,” Robinson said. “But at the same time, no deep shots. Don’t give up the big play.”
Schwartz sprinkled in effective blitzes to go with a four-man rush that benefited from the return of Cox.
“Same thing we’ve been doing all year,” Jenkins said. “Calculated blitzes. Situational blitzes. We played a lot of zone. That was kind of the plan. We pressured them when we wanted to. But for the most part, we had to sit back and play simple defense.”
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