Run, Cam Newton, Run: Panthers' Dual-Threat QB the Key to NFC South

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystDecember 8, 2014

USA Today

The Carolina Panthers' top two offensive performances this season came the same week Cam Newton ran for his two-highest rushing totals.

Coincidence? Hardly. 

Newton is a dynamic dual-threat quarterback, and his ability to frustrate opposing defenses just may be enough to push the 4-8-1 Panthers into a playoff spot. 

Another weekend of play and the NFC South picture remains unclear. 

With the Panthers' decisive 41-10 victory over the New Orleans Saints, Carolina is now half a game behind the 5-8 Saints. The Atlanta Falcons will likely sport the same record at the end of Monday night's contest against the Green Bay Packers

Newton played arguably his best game when the season was on the line Sunday in the Superdome. 

A loss and the team's season was essentially over, but a victory would keep hope alive. The Panthers certainly came alive. 

Carolina absolutely dominated the Saints. Its performance was propelled by Newton's stellar play as both a passer and a running threat. 

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The Panthers set the tone early because of their game plan. 

Jul 25, 2014; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula talks with head coach Ron Rivera during training camp at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

On the third play of the afternoon, offensive coordinator Mike Shula called a zone read. Newton read the defensive end, pulled the ball out of a the running back's pocket and raced around the end of the line of scrimmage for a 21-yard gain. It his was his longest run of the season, which he later surpassed in the first quarter with a 22-yard scamper. 

Newton's threat to run affected the entire game. 

The Panthers haven't relied on the zone read all that often this season. Newton has battled through a recovering ankle, injured ribs and numerous bumps and bruises this year. While trying to protect its quarterback, the coaching staff also hindered an offense that already lacked weapons. 

Newton is essentially the Panthers' top weapon in both phases of the offense. He has a tremendously strong arm and can make throws other starting quarterbacks in the NFL cannot. He can also be very sloppy with his mechanics, which forces poor throws. 

When Newton actually gets into a rhythm as a passer, though, he can be nearly impossible to defend. 

The quarterback's passing stats weren't overwhelming Sunday. He was only 21-of-33 passing for 226 yards. More important, he connected with three different targets for touchdown tosses. 

When a strong passing performance is paired with Newton's ability to run, it opens up all kinds of possibilities. Newton ran for 83 yards, a performance only bested by Week 5's 107 rushing yards against the Cincinnati Bengals

Olsen, who finished the game with 10 receptions for 72 yards, was quite complimentary of his quarterback's play after the contest, per Panthers.com's Bryan Strickland

When he's in control like that, he's as good as there is. This was the day we've been talking about trying to have. Now we have to sustain it.

We've seen what we're capable of; we have to keep this formula going. This is who we are. This is what we're good at. We've just got to continue to execute it.

On Sunday, running back Jonathan Stewart benefited the most from Newton's dual threat with 155 rushing yards, the second-best tally of his career. 

After showing the zone read early and Newton's ability to torch the defense by running the football, run fits changed for the Saints defense. 

The Saints' edge players couldn't crash down on inside running plays because there was always that threat of Newton keeping the ball. As a result, a restructured Panthers offensive line was able to physically control the line of scrimmage while the defense was on its heels. 

Stewart told Carolina Panthers staff writer Max Henson that the team could see a difference against the Saints: 

An effective run game plus Newton's ability to escape pressure also affected the Panthers' passing game. 

With all of the upheaval and constant reshuffling along the Panthers offensive line, Newton was the NFL's second-most sacked quarterback. The fourth-year signal-caller has been continually under pressure all season. 

Newton wasn't sacked once Sunday. 

Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette combined for 13 sacks entering the contest. But they never had an opportunity to pin their ears back and get after Newton—all because they had to account for the Panthers' rushing attack. 

Not only was Newton not sacked, he wasn't even hit when he dropped back to pass. At least, Newton told the Charlotte Observer's Joseph Person that he didn't remember getting hit: 

The cherry on top for Newton was a two-yard touchdown run at the goal line. That ignited the Panthers, who came to his defense when Saints defenders weren't happy with the quarterback's reaction upon scoring a touchdown. 

NFL on CBS captured the intensity the quarterback brought to his team Sunday: 

The rushing touchdown allowed Newton to climb NFL record books, according to the Panthers' public relations department: 

Newton told the team's website that he's willing to do whatever it takes to keeping the offense rolling in the coming weeks:

When you execute like that, it's fun to watch. When you don't, it's hard to watch. As an offense, my job is to put up points any which way possible, and when the offensive line is playing as well as they did today, and our running backs are running like they were, and our guys are catching the ball like they were, it's hard to lose.

Two of the Panthers' final three games are against division opponents. Newton didn't play against the Buccaneers to open the season due to his injured ribs, and he only ran the ball five times against the Falcons three weeks ago.

The Cleveland Browns are the Panthers' lone non-division opponent to round out the season. 

Each of these teams struggle to stop traditional running attacks. All three upcoming opponents are ranked 20th or lower against the run. Newton simply adds a different dimension that will make it even more difficult for them to stop, which increases Carolina's odds of winning.

With Sunday's victory, the Panthers remain within striking distance of first place in the NFC South. Newton can prove to be the X-factor needed to put Carolina over the top in the NFL's worst division.

Brent Sobleski covers the NFC South for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.