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Panthers Offense Headed for Slow Start Due to Cam Newton's Offseason

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Panthers Offense Headed for Slow Start Due to Cam Newton's Offseason
USA TODAY Sports

Being that it was the Carolina Panthers' fourth preseason game, quarterback Cam Newton likely wouldn't have played even had he been healthy.

But Newton was not healthy Thursday night, out with The Charlotte Observer reported was hairline fracture in one of his ribs, suffered in the first half of the loss to the New England Patriots in the team's third preseason game.

Missed time due to injury or recovery has now bookended Newton's offseason. After missing nearly all of OTAs recovering from ankle surgery he had in March, Newton participated in training camp but was barred from running any read-option plays until the final week, per Joseph Person of the Observer

Somewhat surprisingly, given his bruising, physical style, Newton has played a full 16 games in each of his three seasons in the league, and injuries haven't been a big factor for him. But this offseason, arguably the most important of Newton's career in terms of establishing chemistry with his new receiving weapons, injuries have prevented the QB and the offense from developing at the rate they should be. 

Because Newton's presumed top three wide receiver targets in 2014—Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant—are all in their first year with Carolina, every rep between quarterback and receiver is valuable in ironing out any wrinkles in preparation for Week 1 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Coach Ron Rivera expects Newton will be ready to go for the season opener, but the team won't know his status for sure until next week, Person reported. 

It's not just the new receivers who need to get their reps in offensive coordinator Mike Shula's system. In his first season at the helm of the offense, Shula made some changes that benefited Newton, including moving him toward a more conventional offense that asked him to scramble less and improve his pocket presence. It's no coincidence that the shift resulted in Newton's career-best completion percentage of 61.7. 

But Shula's offense isn't quite there yet, and Newton not only needs reps to build chemistry with his new receiving weapon but to continue to adapt his game to Shula's scheme. In 2013, the Panthers were 26th in total offense and 18th in scoring, down from 12th and tied for 18th, respectively, in Rob Chudzinski's scheme in 2012.

A learning curve is to be expected in a new offensive system, and Newton's game changed perceptibly in 2013. He rushed 111 times as compared to 127 times in 2012, for nearly 200 fewer yards. But he's still learning to resist the urge to take off running, which is partly what led to his most recent injury, causing slight frustration on Rivera's part. 

On the play in which he injured his rib, Newton didn't see an open DeAngelo Williams outside the numbers, then decided to take off. New England linebacker Jamie Collins kneed him in the back—in the one gap in the rib protector Newton was wearing, as Rivera told Person—after Newton went down. 

Learning when to throw the ball away will be key in Shula's offense, and Newton hasn't quite gotten there yet, according to Rivera:

The unfortunate part is he had a chance to make a play on it. He chose to tuck it and run. And one of the things he’s going to have to learn and understand is either dump it or learn how to slide. That’s him. That’s just who he is. He tries to get everything out of it, and it’s just unfortunate. One of those fluke things that happened.

Newton was drafted for his playmaking abilities, and no offensive coordinator or head coach would ask him to take his legs out the equation completely. But with three new receivers who are green in the system, Newton needs to focus on refining his pocket presence, improving his reads and working on throwing those receivers open to help them help themselves. 

Andy Benoit of The MMQB characterized the riskiness of Carolina hedging its bets on Newton's athleticism and legs absent improvement in the pocket: "Raw playmaking can’t be game-planned around or relied upon week in and week out. It’s at the mercy of a lot of random factors."

General manager Dave Gettleman and Rivera certainly attempted to give Newton the weapons he needs for a downfield passing attack despite releasing Steve Smith and losing Brandon LaFell in free agency, but it's not yet clear from either training camp or preseason tape that Newton, Benjamin, Avant and Cotchery equate to a productive offense.

The rookie Benjamin, at least, has proven to be coming along faster than expected, regardless of who's throwing him the ball, but he really needs regular-season reps with Newton to establish himself as a true No. 1. Led by Benjamin (and without Newton), the offense was improved Thursday against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Benjamin ended the night with four receptions for 56 yards, including a couple nice long-yardage gains from backup Derek Anderson. 

It was reminiscent of Benjamin's Panthers debut, in which he hauled in a 29-yard reception from Anderson while falling down. 

Benjamin has shined this preseason even when Newton hasn't, sometimes making Newton look better rather than the other way around. Against the Patriots, Benjamin had five receptions on six targets; of Newton's 88 yards, 47 went to Benjamin. 

On Thursday, another bright spot in the passing game included a surprise three-reception, 68-yard performance by undrafted rookie Corey "Philly" Brown out of Ohio State, including a huge 53-yard catch from Joe Webb, that likely secured him a spot on the 53-man roster. 

Newton certainly has weapons this season, but his health and his offensive line will largely determine how well he uses them. His ankle was bothering him as recently as Week 3 against New England, with trainers working on his ankle after the game, even before his rib injury was diagnosed, per Dave Richard of CBSSports.com. 

The lightness of his step on that ankle combined with missing practice time with his receivers have affected the Panthers' timing and rhythm in the passing game, which has Rivera showing some concern. 

"[I'm] just a little disappointed that our timing and rhythm isn't there yet," Rivera said after Friday's game, per Richard. "Hopefully we can get that down. We will work on it most certainly because when he gets his rhythm, you can see that he does some really good things."

But in order to get into a rhythm, Newton has to trust his line to provide protection.

The offensive line underwent an offseason reshuffling, and the results weren't positive after the first two preseason showings. 

Center Ryan Kalil is a constant in the middle, but the remaining four positions have been retooled. After starting left tackle Jordan Gross retired, former right tackle Byron Bell, who went undrafted out of New Mexico in 2011, replaced him on Newton's blind side. Nate Chandler moved to right tackle, next to rookie Trai Turner at right guard. Amini Silatolu is at left guard.

It's telling that in the fourth game of the preseason, when few starters typically play, Rivera kept his starting offensive line in for multiple series. They need the reps. 

Time will tell—quickly—this season whether the new configuration on the line can keep Newton upright. The bar isn't set very high: Newton has been hit more than any other quarterback over the last three seasons, per Person, with 114 sacks. His sack percentage of 8.79 percent was the fourth-highest in 2013, via TeamRankings.com

In 2014 preseason action, the line is still struggling. Measured by Pro Football Focus' Pass Blocking Efficiency metric (subscription required), which measures sacks, hits and hurries against the number of snaps a line engages in pass protection, the Panthers have the second-worst offensive line in the league in pass protection, having allowed 37 total pressures on 106 passing plays. 

3 Worst Offensive Lines in Pass Protection—2014 Preseason
Team 1. San Diego 2. Carolina 3. Minnesota
Passing Plays 85 106 100
Sacks Allowed 5 5 8
Hits Allowed 4 8 1
Hurries Allowed 21 24 24
Total Pressures 30 37 33
Pass-Blocking Efficiency 72.1 72.6 73.3

ProFootballFocus.com

The run blocking has looked better, and it will be important for Carolina to establish a successful ground game with Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Fozzy Whittaker (another pleasant surprise this preseason) in order to give Newton opportunities in the passing game. Newton will continue to make up a significant portion of the rushing offense, even under Shula's more conventional attack.

Most importantly, Newton needs to be smarter about throwing the ball away and learning to slide. If he continues to be reckless, his ankle may become a recurring issue. Injuries have already prevented Newton and his new receivers from shaking off the rust prior to the start of the regular season.

Their development together can't be impeded any further if this unit is going to improve from its No. 26 total-offense mark in 2013.  

 

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