After starting 1-4 and watching Newton mostly struggle through the first five games of his sophomore season, the Panthers needed a chance to regroup and figure out how to fix what has been ailing them in 2012.
Fixing Newton has to be goal No. 1.
Responsible for almost 4,800 total yards and 35 touchdowns as a rookie, Newton is at just under 1,300 with seven touchdowns through five games in 2012. His passer rating and completion percentage are both down slightly from a year ago too.
A number of factors have contributed to the early season struggles. Some are Newton's fault, some aren't.
Here are some ways the Panthers can help fix Newton over the next 11 games in 2012.
Find a Running Game
A season ago, the Panthers finished third in the NFL in total rushing yards (2,408) and first in rushing average (5.4 yards/carry). Running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined to average 100 yards a contest.
Those numbers have fallen off in 2012.
The Panthers now average just 114 yards a game, good for 14th in the NFL. Carolina is currently on pace to rush for almost 800 fewer yards this season.
Newton is the Panthers' leading rusher at 209 yards, while Williams and Stewart have averaged just 70 yards a contest. The two backs have received just 73 combined carries through five games.
If the Panthers offense is going to get back on track, it has to be through the run game.
Too much pressure has been put on Newton to do everything for this offense, but that makes little sense considering how much the Panthers spent on their two running backs the last two seasons. Carolina invested millions in Williams and Stewart with the idea that this offense would continue running through the ground game. So far in 2012, that hasn't been the case.
When offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinkski gets back to calling games like he did in 2011, the Panthers offense will start producing at a 2011 level again.
Make the Checkdown OK
When asked about the reason for Newton's struggles, a common answer throughout the organization has been that he's been "pressing" too much. Head coach Ron Rivera has been at the forefront of that argument.
Rivera, via Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer:
I think he’s pressing, personally I do. He wants to make things happen so much. He’s trying very hard to do those things, do the right things. It’s all part of him developing as a football player.
A major part of the pressing has been Newton's insistence on finding the big play downfield. With Steve Smith and speedster Brandon LaFell capable of making those plays, Newton has too often waited for things to clear vertically rather than taking what the defense is giving him underneath.
The result has been more deep shots down the field, but less yards and points and more sacks through five games.
The bye week could serve as a learning tool for Newton, who needs to understand that taking the checkdown in front of him is sometimes the best play.
After the Panthers' loss to Seattle at home in Week 5, Newton started to acknowledge that fact, via Person:
Our offense is designed to throw the football down field, but it’s on me as the quarterback to manage this football game. Even though the shots weren’t there downfield I have to be accurate in throwing the ball underneath and throwing the ball to the checkdowns, and that didn’t happen.
Finding the checkdown should increase Newton's completion percentage and the offense's efficiency overall while also reducing sacks and setting up more manageable third downs. It's a win-win scenario for a young quarterback.
Limit the Option Read Plays
Chudzinski was able to successfully sprinkle in some read-option plays during Newton's rookie season. The NFL was somewhat unaware of defending the play, but those days are mostly over. A year of film in the books, and defenses have started to clamp down on that look from Newton.
The Panthers don't have to scrap the play from their sheet, but it's time to start limiting the call. Far too often, Newton is keeping the football and avoiding the backs, likely as a part of him pressing and the defense taking away both options.
Carolina is a good enough running team to find success without using the gimmick option. Getting too cute can sometimes result in more limited results.
Called rarely, the option read can be a useful asset for Chudzinski and the Panthers offense. It's been overused in 2012.