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Cam Newton still struggling from 'Super Bowl hangover' against blitz

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers are almost two years removed from their Super Bowl 50 loss, and quarterback Cam Newton continues to struggle against what the Denver Broncos perhaps revealed as his kryptonite.

The blitz.

The Broncos blitzed Newton 52 percent of the time in their 24-10 victory that concluded the 2015 season. The quarterback that celebrates touchdowns with his patented “Superman" move completed 50 percent of his passes for 164 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. He was sacked six times and fumbled twice en route to a Total Quarterback Rating of 21.

Fast forward to Sunday’s 31-21 loss at New Orleans, a game that left the Saints (9-3) a game ahead of Carolina (8-4) in the NFC South.

Newton was blitzed 56 percent of the time in the second half and completed 4 of 12 pass attempts. In the first half, he completed 13 of 15 with two touchdowns when the Saints blitzed only 23 percent of the time and rushed four or fewer players, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

For the season, Newton ranks 22nd in the NFL against the blitz, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He has completed 55 percent of his pass attempts for six touchdowns and four interceptions with six sacks when opponents bring an extra defender. His 54 QBR against the blitz is the second-worst of his career.

His worst QBR rating against the blitz was 36 a year ago following the Super Bowl loss, when it seemed almost every team blitzed Newton more.

During the 2015 regular season, when opponents blitzed Newton only 40 percent of the time, he had a QBR of 81, completing 59 percent of his passes for 19 touchdowns and three interceptions.

So the blitz definitely has been a factor in his play since the Super Bowl.

"Cam’s an athletic player," said linebacker A.J. Klein, who signed with New Orleans during the offseason after spending the past four years with the Panthers. "He can get out of the pocket and make plays. So to keep him contained in the pocket, you have to be able to bring pressure. And I think a lot of teams know that, and they’ve been a team that’s been pressured over the last how many years, even when I was there."

New Orleans spent the first half trying to shut down Newton and the read-option run to force the Panthers to pass. Building the lead to 28-14 also helped.

"And then we really started to pin the ears back that second half, and that’s where you started seeing him get antsy," Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said. "That’s where that pocket really collapsed. In the first half, we were sort of -- I wouldn’t say reserved, but more cautious."

Newton’s next opponent, Minnesota (10-2), is blitzing only 24 percent of the time this season. But when the Vikings blitz they are effective. Opponents have a QBR of 34, the fifth-best percentage by a defense.

Minnesota sacked Newton eight times and hit him 12 times last season in a 22-10 victory over the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium. Three of those sacks came off the blitz, against which Newton was 5-for-11 (46 percent) for 53 yards with no touchdowns and an interception.

This season, quarterbacks have completed 53 percent of their passes with three touchdowns, two interceptions and seven sacks against the Minnesota blitz.

“They can get pressure on the passer without having to blitz, and yet they have a really good blitz package," Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “There’s not many weaknesses."

It’s surprising teams don’t blitz Newton more with his struggles against that package. He’s been blitzed only 29 percent of the time this year, the lowest rate of his career.

But he still struggles.

“People are going to blitz Cam," said Carolina wide receiver Russell Shepard, who signed with Carolina during the offseason after spending four years with NFC South rival Tampa Bay. “They’re going to come from everywhere, whether it’s a safety, linebacker or corner.

“That’s how you stop a running quarterback. That’s how you stop a quarterback that can do multiple things. A guy that can beat you with his feet, you want to blitz him, you want to match somebody on him. It’s something they’ve been dealing with here before I even got here."

Newton's counterpart on Sunday, Case Keenum, has been just the opposite. He leads the league with a 94 QBR against the blitz. He’s completed 65 percent of his passes for 10 touchdowns and only two interceptions against it.

He’s been sacked only once.

So it’ll be interesting to see how the Panthers, who are blitzing far more than they did a year ago and are tied for fifth in the NFL in sacks with 34, will attack the journeyman quarterback.

The plan on both sides will be interesting, with Minnesota ranking second overall in the league in total defense and Carolina sixth, down from second a week ago after giving up 400 yards to the Saints.

But based on how Newton has done against the blitz, it’s certain to be a part of Minnesota’s strategy.

Shula hesitates to generalize on how effective teams have been blitzing against Newton, but he admits there is room for improvement.

He also reminds that on the first third-down play against the Saints, third-and-3 from the New Orleans 25, Newton completed a 13-yard pass to Kaelin Clay against the blitz.

He reminds that on the first third-down play against Miami last month, Newton hit the hot read for a 19-yard pickup against the blitz and on another he threw for a touchdown.

He reminds it’s not always Newton’s fault, referring to the third play of the second half against the Saints when Klein came through untouched for a 13-yard sack on third-and-2.

“There was a lot going on before the snap there," said Shula, referring to the Saints being in the neutral zone and the officials not calling it, something coach Ron Rivera addressed after the game.

Overall, Shula said how Newton has handled the blitz has been “good at times this year, and maybe not so good at other times."

“We can be better, for sure," he added. “And we will be than we were in the second half [Sunday]."

ESPN's Mike Triplett contributed to this report.