The Carolina Panthers beat the Minnesota Vikings by a score of 35-10 in Week 6 of the NFL regular season. Although Adrian Peterson was in the spotlight for non-football reasons, it was Panthers quarterback Cam Newton who scored four touchdowns and led his side to victory.
Even though Newton scored four touchdowns, he only accounted for 272 total yards and wasn't his usual flashy self. However, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
The Panthers didn't just score points because of Newton's play. The Vikings' inability to sustain drives on offense and some bad plays at critical times aided the Panthers offense, but the offense itself was more reliant on the running game than Newton's arm. DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert didn't finish with overly impressive statistics, but they were very efficient in putting the offense in good situations.
Newton wasn't finding his wide receivers deep downfield with the usual velocity and precision. Instead, he took what the defense gave him by checking down consistently and allowing his receivers to make plays in space. That allowed him to complete 20 of 26 passes, but more importantly, it allowed the offense to consistently sustain drives while still putting points on the board.
Outside of his very first pass, a throw he forced into a tight window over the middle of the field that should have been intercepted by Jamarca Sanford, Newton played with all of the caution of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith.
In fact, one of Newton's three passing touchdowns came on a play like this.
Deep in Vikings territory, the Panthers ran DeAngelo Williams outside with Newton rushing inside of him initially. Newton was running an option play, and Williams wasn't his only option as he pitched the ball back inside to Tolbert, who was running behind the line of scrimmage.
Tolbert broke four tackles before falling into the end zone. Newton was credited with the touchdown, but his talent wasn't stretched and it's hard to argue that he really created the score even though he did make a smart decision.
Much like the Chiefs have found with Smith on their journey to a 6-0 start this season, Newton was able to continually excel playing this way without risking turnovers. Like Smith also, the Panthers didn't just rely on short passes to keep the offense moving; they also relied on Newton's feet.
Rushing for just 30 yards is a fine performance for most quarterbacks, but not for Newton. Statistically, more would be expected of the freakishly athletic young player, but again, his efficiency overrode any worries about how he performed for his fantasy owners.
The Vikings consistently pushed the pocket and pressured Newton. On numerous occasions, Newton neutralised their threat with his feet or with his ability to throw from an awkward angle. On an early third down, Newton showed off his athleticism, but more importantly, he also showed off his timing and awareness.
On 3rd-and-1, Vikings defensive end Jared Allen pushed his blocker back into Newton. Newton didn't immediately leave the pocket, as he hung in long enough to survey the field.
Newton waited long enough to draw Allen onto the inside shoulder of his left tackle before dropping backward without turning to escape into the flat. Allen stuck with him, though, and was in position to take him down. That would have forced the Panthers to punt on what eventually turned into a scoring drive.
After waiting long enough to give the pass a chance and timing his escape perfectly, Newton used his athleticism in space to get the first down and continue down the sideline. Newton didn't have huge runs or consistently look to run, but he was very efficient and scored a touchdown on another very impressive play.
On 3rd-and-goal in the third quarter with Carolina looking to kill the game off with a touchdown, the Panthers motioned a back into the slot to put Newton in a passing situation. Often the Panthers will run Newton on a designed play in this situation, but that wasn't the case this time around.
He dropped back to pass, but the Vikings dropped eight defenders in coverage and only rushed three. That should have given Newton time to throw, but his right tackle's poor play and a miscommunication on the line allowed Brian Robison to get to Newton quickly.
Newton could have dumped it off to his back in the flat, but he never looked his way and the back likely wouldn't have gotten into the end zone either way.
Once Robison penetrated the pocket, he looked to attack the ball. However, Newton showed excellent strength before he smartly swung the ball away from Robison's flailing arm. Once in open space, Newton was able to split the defenders and get into the end zone for the touchdown.
Three of Newton's four total touchdowns came on plays that began close to the end zone. The other one wasn't an overly impressive play from the young quarterback, as he stared down Steve Smith, who was running a crossing route at the goal line.
Unless the Panthers recognised a tell in coverage during the week's tape study, Newton was fortunate on this play. Even though Smith came free as he ran away from the defensive back, if a defender had been in zone coverage to that side of the field, he could have had an easy interception from reading the quarterback's eyes.
While Newton was mostly capping off drives during this game, he did make a statement play from deep on the Panthers' first drive of the second half. It resulted in a touchdown, but most importantly, it appeared to kill any momentum the Vikings had built up with a field-goal drive before the end of the second quarter.
On 3rd-and-3 at the Panthers' 21-yard-line, Newton lined up in the shotgun with two players alongside him. The Vikings only rushed four defenders at the snap and were showing man coverage with one safety, Harrison Smith, in the box.
The Vikings didn't play man coverage; they dropped into zone. However, the Panthers were able to manipulate that zone coverage immediately with play action. Newton faked the ball to Williams in the backfield, which dragged the linebackers to that side of the field. The quarterback also ducked down, so safety Harrison Smith, circled, hesitated as he tried to locate the football.
Newton initially looked to the left side of the field and stayed with the receiver to that side for a moment. That drew the two linebackers further to that side of the field, while Smith continued to move toward the line of scrimmage instead of dropping deeper into coverage.
On the other side of the field, the outside receiver was running a post route to drag the deep cornerback into the middle of the field. The slot receiver ran out to the sideline and went unnoticed because the cornerback who started in the slot was playing underneath in the flat.
With the defense in zone coverage and the Vikings playing so many defenders underneath, it only took one mistake from the defensive back to give up a big play.
Before Newton could look to the other side of the field, he had to avoid a blocker who was pushed back into his chest. Newton sidestepped away from the blocker and took the time to reset himself before throwing a perfect pass down the field to his receiver.
That receiver was Brandon LaFell, and he had an easy route to the end zone because of Ted Ginn's huge block down the sideline.
Newton is still just 24 years of age. He is not yet near his prime, but he already has a reputation as a big playmaker who makes some mistakes. He had one major mistake in this game on his very first throw, but for the most part, this was a very atypical performance for Newton.
What is atypical at this point may become typical in the future because Newton showed a willingness to play within the scheme and defer to the playmakers around him rather than force plays. Even though the Panthers were aided by some very poor plays from the Vikings, it's hard to argue that this type of performance isn't better for the team.
It's not always about big plays and big numbers. Considering the turmoil that has already absorbed Newton's career at times, that is something he likely already knows. If he doesn't, he appears to be learning at the very least.