ALLEN PARK, Mich. – They can tell by the crowd. It’s a little different at home, where the Detroit Lions will face Cam Newton on Sunday, but it’s still the indicator. When Detroit is on defense and the crowd begins to buzz, the defensive players know one of two things has happened.
Either the Lions have stopped Newton, or the Carolina Panthers quarterback is about to make a big play.
“You’ll definitely know where he is by the crowd,” defensive end George Johnson said. “If the crowd is screaming and yelling, then you know he’s out of the pocket. You know he’s gone.”
Typically, this is more of the response when he’s playing in Charlotte, but it can happen on the road, too. The chatter might just sound a little different, more groans and grunts and a collective "ugggghhhh" than wild cheering. And that’s Detroit’s goal for Sunday -- keep Ford Field’s moaning and groaning over anything Newton does to a minimum.
Rare is the team that has a player who can approximate his skills on their roster during practice; if they did, he’d likely be in the lineup. And that running ability is something defenses don’t have to prep for each week. For instance, none of Detroit’s first four opponents had quarterbacks who can really run.
Adjusting this week shouldn’t be incredibly difficult because the Lions have seen this before, but it’s a different level of understanding. Linebacker Tahir Whitehead said it doesn’t necessarily change how Detroit has prepared, but “you just keep it more in mind, take notice of that.” Of course, with Newton’s size, speed and strength, it’s hard not to.
“If he drops and spins out that pocket, it’s one of two things that can happen,” defensive tackle Akeem Spence said. “He can take off for 80 or he can throw that thing on a tight rope down the field. You don’t want to give a guy like that time, man. And then when you try to tackle him, it’s not one guy that’s going to get it done. You’re going to need multiple guys to get him on the ground.”
Newton has been averaging 4.09 yards per rush this season – over a yard less than his career average of 5.14 yards, but in line with how he ran in 2016. The past three games, though, he’s averaged over 5 yards per carry, again establishing himself as a legitimate dual-threat option.
The Lions recognize it -- know it all too well. They also see Carolina’s multitude of options at running back and receiver and understand how scary an offense the Panthers possess, how much potential is there.
It begins with Newton and the problems he can create. Spence and Johnson are longtime foes going back to Tampa. It’s a matter of containing him, but not playing too cautiously where he can take advantage of that, too.
“You want to contain him but you don’t want your guys playing slow worrying about keeping him in the pocket,” Spence said. “You want to be aggressive. You’re going to have different guys coming from different angles and Cam is one of those quarterbacks, you hit him enough times, he’ll start to look at the rush before he started looking at his guys downfield.”
The Lions can do this by being smart with disguising their blitzes and making sure they aren’t showing too early on coverages. They can also do this by winning their single-block battles on the line of scrimmage to reach Newton before his receivers can get into deep routes.
Teams might be better off making Newton throw to beat them. Take away his ability to run, and while his arm is strong, if a team has a good secondary -- like the Lions do -- they have a shot. Newton has as many interceptions (five) as touchdowns this year. He has the best completion percentage of his career through his first four games (65.2 percent) but has completed 60 percent or more of his passes in only two of his full seasons in the league -- his first two.
So the Lions could take advantage of the inaccuracy if they can keep him from running too much. They do that, and the sounds the Lions hear Sunday afternoon will mean Newton hasn’t popped loose too often.
“The thing you really got to do with him is just really make sure you’ve always got eyes on him,” Johnson said. “It’s easier said than done, but he’s a real athletic quarterback and you always got to make sure, you really can’t let him take over the game, which is the thing.”