The Eagles have limited time to practice this week, but even a full week would not compensate for the challenges of preparing for Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Former Eagles coach Chip Kelly once said the only way they could simulate Newton in practice was by borrowing a power forward from the Sixers. With Amir Johnson busy Tuesday, the Eagles used practice-squad wide receiver Greg Ward to try to mimic Newton’s mobility.
That gave the Eagles a taste, but it won’t be the same as what the defense will experience when it faces the 6-foot-5, 245-pound former MVP on Thursday night.
“You have to be good in so many different areas,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “He can be a pocket passer, he can run the read-option, he can run designed runs, he can run off-schedule runs, but he’s as good a pocket passer as there is. So I think that’s what makes it difficult to defend every one of those. He’s not a one-trick pony.”
The Eagles didn’t play the Panthers last season, so it’s not yet known how this coaching staff will defend Newton. The former coaching staff utilized a linebacker to “spy” Newton in case he escaped the pocket. Those responsibilities could fall on Jordan Hicks on Thursday.
The most mobile quarterback the Eagles faced this season has been Kansas City’s Alex Smith. During the past three weeks, the opposing quarterbacks rarely left the pocket. Thursday’s game offers a different type of challenge. Safety Malcolm Jenkins said when a quarterback can run the ball, it forces the defense to worry about all 11 players. The pass rushers must avoid getting so deep that Newton can easily get to the edge.
“Hopefully our pass rush can contain him,” Hicks said. “Our guys are disciplined enough to keep him in the pocket and force him to have to beat us throwing the ball.”
That’s exactly what Newton has done in recent weeks. After a slow start to the season, Newton has been as hot as any quarterback in the NFL the past two games in wins over the Patriots and Lions. He has completed 48 of 62 attempts (77 percent) for 671 yards and six touchdowns, with one interception. He also has 15 rushes for 44 yards and a score during that span, but he has rushed less this season than most years. Newton is averaging 5.8 carries per game. During his MVP campaign in 2015, he had 8.2 carries per game.
“They’ve had a lot of games where guys are wide-open,” Jenkins said. “If guys are open, no need to run it. But he always has that ability, especially in crucial situations when he can run it for a first down, get them out of trouble and create some plays. But he’s definitely throwing the ball a lot more.”
His weapons have also improved. The Panthers have a pair of towering receivers – Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess – who are 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-4. Even with tight end Greg Olsen injured, backup Ed Dickson has been a big factor. Rookie running back Christian McCaffrey is one of the NFL’s most versatile players; defensive players in the Eagles locker room compared the way the Panthers use him to how the Eagles deployed Darren Sproles.
Newton knows how to find them. He is third in the NFL among regular starting quarterbacks in yards per attempt (8.5) and is fourth in completion rate (68.3 percent). Both are career highs.
“He’s doing a great job putting the ball where it needs to be, seeing where it needs to be,” Hicks said. “When he scrambles, he’s looking for guys to throw the ball to.”
Even if the Eagles get to Newton, he has the strength to fight off tacklers. Hicks said the Eagles might need more than one defender to bring him down.
Schwartz has called blitzes more often this season, and the Eagles will use them selectively on Thursday to put Newton on a clock. It’s always important for the cornerbacks to hold their coverage, but Schwartz admitted it becomes more important against a quarterback like Newton. The Eagles practiced scramble drills throughout the offseason because of Carson Wentz’s mobility, so the defense has experience in those situations. But practice is different than games because Wentz wears a red jersey. The challenge isn’t just containing or running with Newton, but also getting him to the ground.
Whether it was Wentz in training camp or Ward this week, it will be a different experience for the Eagles on Thursday. How the defense fares against Newton could determine whether the Eagles pull off the upset in Charlotte.
“This is not schoolyard football,” Schwartz said. “He can sit back there and throw as pure as anybody in the NFL. But he also has the ability when it does break down to be able to create. So not only do you have to cover the timing of the route and the reception point of the route, but you do have to plaster and our rush needs to do a good job eliminating places … he can step up.”