Behind Enemy Lines: Why Panthers' Newton has become more one-dimensional

A scouting report on Cam Newton and Co. as the Bears prepare for Sunday's game.

After a deflating 38-17 home loss to the Packers on Sunday, the Bears head back on the road this weekend with a trip to Carolina. The Bears are 2-0 on the road this season and 0-2 at home. So perhaps the journey east will do the team some good. With that in mind, we asked Jonathan Jones, who covers the Panthers for the Charlotte Observer, for his candid personal scouting report.

Here are four things you need to know about the Panthers before Sunday’s kickoff.

1. Cam Newton doesn’t appear to be the Cam Newton of old.

Newton has had a decent season to this point. He’s currently completing 63.8 percent of his passes and has yet to throw an interception on 94 throws. And his 98.2 rating speaks to his efficiency. But still slowed by offseason ankle surgery plus a hairline fracture to his ribs that he suffered in August, Newton just hasn’t been the electric dual threat that folks in Carolina are so used to seeing.

Remember in 2011 and 2012, when Newton ran for 1,447 yards and 22 scores, carrying the ball an average of eight times per start? Well nowadays, he’s being put in the pocket and reminded to use his legs sparingly. In consecutive losses to the Steelers and Ravens, Newton had four rushes for 14 yards. Total. Which seems to diminish the fear he used to strike in opposing defenses.

In those past two defeats, the Panthers haven’t turned Newton loose on the zone read once.

“That’s been such a huge staple of their offense since 2011,” Jones said. “And if you’re not running him on that, defenses aren’t going to bite on it. So what advantage do you have as an offense? ... Without Cam’s legs, you lose a weapon. It’s as simple as that.”

Panthers coach Ron Rivera has been forward in saying he has suggested to Newton to be conservative on the run until further notice. So the Panthers quarterback is not looking to break loose as much as he once did. So when will that green light come? And how will Newton show he’s physically ready to handle it?

“Cam’s just not going to be 100 percent at any point this season,” Jones said. “This is how it’s going to go. He’s going to play Sunday, wake up stiff on Monday, get his treatment through Tuesday and then hopefully be OK to practice every Wednesday. They’ll take care of him to the point where on Sundays he’ll feel as good as he’s going to feel before the game. And then he’ll play and the whole thing happens all over again.”

2. Greg Hardy’s absence has diminished the Panthers’ pass rush.

The Bears weren’t the only NFL team who suffered a lopsided loss last weekend in big part because they couldn’t create much pressure with their defense. The Panthers never did anything to rattle Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in their own 38-10 loss. Flacco threw for 327 yards and three scores, wasn’t sacked and was only hit by the Panthers twice.

A year ago, Hardy was a terror off the edge, recording 15 sacks to rank third in the NFL. But since Week 2, he has been exiled from the team, currently sitting on the NFL’s Exempt List due to his role in a stomach-turning domestic violence case last May. If you want explicit detail on why Hardy’s legal issues have sparked outside outrage, take some time to read this story. 

(Hardy’s case remains in the legal process after he appealed a North Carolina judge’s ruling that he was guilty of misdemeanor charges of assault on a female and communicating threats.)

From a football standpoint, the Panthers haven’t quite been able to replace what Hardy offered with his pass rush skills.

“Hardy and (left defensive end) Charles Johnson worked really well together,” Jones said. “Hardy was a dependable three-down guy. And now they’re filling his spot with Wes Horton, who’s a second-year undrafted player whose more of a first- and second-down guy. And then there’s Mario Addison, who has a couple of good moves. But he’s only a situational pass rusher who’s about 260 pounds. So now that ripple effect sends a lot of attention Charles Johnson’s way. And he’s just getting stonewalled.”

That should be encouraging news to Bears quarterback Jay Cutler. Carolina currently ranks 13th in the NFL with eight sacks.

“They are getting little pressure whatsoever,” Jones said. “Flacco was able to get the ball out quickly. It was right out of Drew Brees’ formula to beat the Panthers. Get the ball away quickly and make things happen. But the Panthers seemed ill prepared for that. They were trying not to get beat by Flacco’s big arm and keeping everything in front of them. But with that, they were playing too soft on the back end. And the pass rush wasn’t working. And Flacco just sliced away for 300-plus yards.”

3. The Panthers’ rush defense is suspect as well.

In addition to Hardy’s absence, linebacker Thomas Davis has been battling injuries. Davis seemed a step slow in the Panthers’ Week 3 loss to the Steelers as he battled a hip injury. And then he suffered a hamstring injury at the end of that game, causing him to miss the Week 4 game against the Ravens. That’s left Carolina vulnerable against the run. The Steelers had two backs go up over 100 yards rushing as Leveon Bell (21 carries, 147 yards) and Legarrette Blount (10 for 118) accomplished the feat. Last week, the Ravens ran for 127 yards.

“The last few games, they’ve been getting gashed on the ground,” Jones said. “The gap integrity has been a problem. And even Luke Kuechly, who’s a really talented player, has been out of place at times and missing some key tackles. These backs are getting to the second level far too easily and then they’re just exploding.”

4. If Newton needs help on offense, he might not get much from his running backs.

The Panthers could face the Bears without their top four backs. Tailback DeAngelo Williams (high ankle sprain) is out for a while. Mike Tolbert (knee) is on Injured Reserve, designated to return. Jonathan Stewart is also iffy to play as he continues battling his own knee injury. And Fozzy Whitaker has a thigh issue that kept him out of Wednesday’s practice.

Carolina finished last week with Darrin Reaves carrying the load, then signed Chris Ogbonnaya this week.

The most intriguing playmaker in the passing game for Newton is rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who’s more than capable of the highlight reel catch. Benjamin has 21 catches, 329 yards and three TDs, an early candidate for Rookie of the Year.

“The guy makes big catches. He has big-play ability,” Jones said. “That’s why the Panthers drafted him. Now it’s about working on the small stuff and recognizing when to block, when to be less aggressive.”

Benjamin has four penalties through four games including calls for holding, offensive pass interference and an illegal block above the waist.

“He tries to do a little too much at times,” Jones said. “He obviously can catch the football. Now they’re in a process of zeroing in on all the little things with him.”

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