Call it Project Cam Newton. As the Eagles returned to work on Monday after a mini-bye weekend, the defense turned its focus to the Carolina quarterback who presents such a unique challenge. At 6-5 and 245 pounds (more on that later), Newton is a blend of rocket-armed quarterback and bruising running back. There is no other player like him in the NFL.
Welcome to prep week for the Eagles' defense.
"If you don't prepare for Cam Newton and his ability as a ballcarrier then you will have a rough day against him," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "They have designed runs. They're running 'power' runs. He's more of a power running back than half the running backs they have. He's tough to get on the ground. At the same time, you can't commit 1,000 guys to the run, because he can pick it up and throw it. They've got more-than-capable guys on the back end. So that's what makes it a unique challenge to match up with these guys.
"I can't think of another quarterback in the league where they're running 'quarterback powers,' so you really have to account for him as a true running back in their run game, which is why they're always in the top of the league in rushing. Also, to have the arm to make every throw on the field, to be able to stretch the field, and have the receivers to do it … it's things that guys aren't used to doing. So this week of preparation is going to be key for us. We won't have to prepare for these types of things for the rest of the year."
The good news is that, as we know, the Eagles have seen Newton before. They're 2-2 against him, including last season's 28-23 win in Charlotte, one of the turning points of the regular season. The Eagles went down to Carolina for a Thursday night game and played a physical, fantastic game. Newton had some numbers, rushing for 71 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries, completing 28 of 52 passes for 239 yards and a score. But Newton tossed three interceptions and the Eagles came out on top with a final-drive stop of Newton and Carolina's offense.
Newton's game is not a surprise to anyone in the NFL. It's changed a bit this season with new offensive coordinator Norv Turner at the helm, and Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz spoke on Monday about the new wrinkles of the Carolina offense that have shown up on tape, but the essence is the same: A defense has to respect Newton as a quarterback who can take over a game in the pocket or challenging a defense with his power running game.
His power running game.
"This year they're a lot more with him, the designed quarterback runs," linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill said. "It's almost like having two running backs out there at one time. No doubt, he's a big guy and everything revolves around him."
The emergence of running back Christian McCaffrey – who leads the Panthers with 349 ground yards – has added to the dynamic of the Panthers' rushing attack, but Newton is right there with 209 rushing yards and a team-high three rushing touchdowns.
Schwartz's defense must prepare for the 245-pound Newton – many think of him as a 260-pounder after he weighed in at 248 pounds for the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine, and who loses weight in the NFL? – to take the rock and run it no matter the down, distance, or spot on the field. As Schwartz noted on Monday, the design of the Carolina run game is sophisticated, but the design isn't the tricky part. It's the commitment to the run, and to Newton, that makes Sunday so challenging.
"You see it (design of the running game) across college football, but really no different than a lot of other teams," Schwartz said. "Probably their willingness to do it in all down and distances and all field positions. There's a lot of teams that will run zone read stuff in the red zone or on a short-yardage play. But Carolina, I don't think you can put any kind of constraint on down and distance. Third down and whatever, you still got to handle the quarterback's designed runs, second-and-20, I think last night (in Carolina's loss to Washington on Sunday) they had second-and-17 or second-and-20, and they ran the quarterback.
"There's a lot of other teams you can take him off your radar in those situations; not in this game. Every time that ball is snapped, whether it's designed run or just an off-schedule scramble, we're going to have to account for him."
And the defense has to account for Turner, a sharp and experienced offensive designer who loves to run the football to set everything else up for big plays down the field.
"I think there are significant changes. You see some familiar faces, (WR Devin) Funchess, (RB Christian) McCaffrey, (TE Greg) Olsen, obviously Cam Newton," Schwartz said. "Significant changes on their offensive line, significant changes at their other wide receiver positions, drafting DJ Moore, getting him in there, different tight ends, bringing (RB) C.J. Anderson in.
"So it's not just a new coordinator, but there is significant different dynamic of players there. Like I said, they just, to go Spinal Tap on you, they just turn their quarterback runs up to 11. That's really probably the biggest difference. Credit to a guy like Norv Turner who has had a really long career and he's embraced that and puts a lot of pressure on the defense by doing that."
The studying is in full flight. The defense knows it has a lot on its plate come Sunday against a Carolina offense that offers the tough-to-handle challenge of Newton, and everything and everybody around him.