How do you defend a dual-threat quarterback?
It's a conundrum that NFL defensive coordinators face every Sunday because the offense is essentially playing with an extra player (an "extra gap" coaches claim) on the field, which is unfair considering they already know where they want to go with the ball. Combined with the implementation of spread formations, the problem is only exacerbated.
Defensive masterminds have turned to blitzing, playing more forms of coverage, continued use of pure zone coverage concepts and spying on the quarterback.
All are fine ways of defending mobile quarterbacks, but it's hard to simulate the natural ability of a Cam Newton, who has quickly become the ultimate weapon at the quarterback position because of his otherworldly talent.
The Carolina Panthers quarterback seems, at times, indefensible. He can outrun the spy with his quality long speed, run over them with his great size or make them miss with his impressive agility.
And despite being raw as a passer, he boasts a strong arm that enables him to make high velocity throws into the tight windows of zone coverage before defenders can close down the cracks.
NFL defenses will have to continue to make adjustments to slow down Newton, and they can start by continuing to play more zone coverage and become flexible out of it to defend both the run and pass of Newton. One example is Quarters coverage, which can be played in more than one way, such as a combination of man and zone coverage, pattern reading and the traditional form of spot-dropping.
Quarters, also known as "Cover 4," coverage is, drawn up in its traditional form, is a pure zone coverage that features three underneath defenders splitting the field into thirds while four deep defenders divide the field in fourths.
It's also a great way to defend Newton and the effective zone read that he was known for running at Auburn and now with the Panthers.
The reason the coverage concept could be effective against Newton's zone read is because the two deep safeties read run first as part of their assignments. This means that if they see their key, which is the No. 2 pass catcher, block, they come crashing down to the line of scrimmage to defend the run.
Further, pressure packages can be applied to slow down Newton's running game from the zone read option.
Because Newton reads the unblocked defensive end to the backside of the play, he is able to decide quickly if he's going to hand it off to the running back or keep it himself based off of the reaction of the end.
If the end attempts to make a play down the line of scrimmage on the running back, Newton pulls the ball from the belly of the back and runs it himself. If the end stays at his original alignment instead of pursuing downhill, Newton simply hands it off to the running back.
However, if the defense sends a blitzing defensive back behind the crashing defensive end, then Newton runs into a problem because he has been accounted for by the defensive back while the running back is no longer a threat with the defensive end pursuing him.
When defending against the Panthers passing game, Quarters is also effective because it offers endless possibilities after the snap for the defense. They can rotate into different coverages and play different forms of the original coverage, such as the aforementioned pattern reading concepts.
Pattern reading, which is best explained by former coach Tom Olivadotti in his book Coaching Pattern-Read Coverage, can be described as football's version of basketball's matchup zone or an "aggressive zone defensive coverage... [that] puts a defender on a tight man-to-man coverage on a receiver after the pass pattern expresses itself," as Olivadotti put it.
This can be played in either one or two deep safety shells and behind blitzes. It takes away the holes typically found in zone coverage, such exposed middle of the field behind the middle linebacker in Cover 4. By doing this, the defense can play tight man to man coverage, as Olivadotti states, and still keep eyes on the football.
Last but not least, spying the quarterback is another option for defenses to account for Newton's mobility. Spying on the Panthers quarterback is still a difficult task because he is dangerous in the open field regardless of who is in his way, but it's one option that at least accounts for him.
We've seen defenses do this in years past, such as when the Atlanta Falcons spied on quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs a couple of years ago. The Falcons dropped an additional player in coverage by replacing a defensive lineman, thus making it a three man front opposed to the standard four that they play up front.
When they spied on Rodgers, they did it with the middle linebacker, who sat in a short zone and mirrored Rodgers' movements. However, the issue that Atlanta ran into was that Rodgers was still dangerous enough to beat them with his arm. As the video to the right shows, Rodgers made a throw over and in behind the spy for the first down.
Although the Falcons did not have success with it, it doesn't mean it's not a quality approach to neutralizing (to some degree) the mobility of the opposing quarterback.
There are multiple ways to spy Newton, whether it is with a linebacker like the Falcons did or an athletic defensive end that drops off in coverage while a pressure overload comes from the opposite side.
It can also be done out of zone coverages, like the Falcons did in the video out of the Tampa 2. The Tampa 2 is often viewed as a variation of the Cover 2 zone concept, but it has its roots in another zone coverage: Cover 3.
Cover 3 is a four under, three deep pure zone coverage (in its traditional form) that has been very effective for decades and still is today.
Although Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has only one season under his belt, he has quickly become one of the league's most feared quarterbacks.
He possesses a very strong arm that can stretch the field vertically and fit it into small windows horizontally, while also displaying good accuracy and touch. The most dangerous aspect of Newton's game might not be his his arm, however, instead his feet.
Newton is very dangerous when he escapes the pocket and gets into the open field because he has very good agility and long speed for his size. Unfortunately, defensive coaches found this out the hard way last season by playing a lot of man coverage, which saw defenders turn their back to Newton and give him the green light to escape the pocket.
As the Panthers quarterback develops his game, defensive coordinators will be brainstorming schemes that slow down the NFL Rookie of the Year.
They will look to play more forms of zone coverage, such as pattern reading, in order to keep all eyes on the dangerous signal caller and stay flexible in their coverages, such as rotating out of Quarters, to confuse him before and after the snap. They're also likely to employ more spies on Newton than they did last season in order to keep him in the pocket.
But the question is, will it be enough as Newton develops?