Panthers' playoff opponents better have plan to tackle Cam Newton

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The first Atlanta Falcons tackler had a shot at Carolina Panthers star Cam Newton at the 45-yard line, 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage and 14½ yards shy of the first down as the pocket began to collapse.

Newton ran through him.

Defensive end Malliciah Goodman was in near-perfect position to make a tackle at the 40. Newton ran through him and dragged the 6-foot-4, 276-pound Goodman four yards to the 36.

Linebacker Justin Durant met Newton head-on at the 35-yard line. Newton spun out of that tackle and plowed on to the 32 with Durant hanging on to his left leg and three other defenders converging into a scrum.

Newton continued to push forward, twisting and turning his 6-foot-5, 260-pound frame and methodically moving the pile. He ultimately extended his right arm to get the ball past the first-down marker.

That sequence from a Week 16 game at the Georgia Dome happened so fast, even the officials had to take a second look on replay to get the spot right.

It was one of those "Beast Mode" moments that Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch is known for.

Newton, of course, is a quarterback.

"It was like a commercial," Panthers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. "Really, like you just get a bunch of people in the commercial and say, 'Hey, you grab this leg; he's going to drag you a couple of yards. You come in next and hit him.'

"It was a cool thing to watch."

It was impressive to watch. It was perhaps the best run of Newton's career and a great example of what teams will have to deal with in the playoffs against the top-seeded Panthers (15-1), who will play host to Seattle on Sunday.

It certainly was the best example of how hard it is to bring Newton down.

"Superman," Panthers defensive end Mario Addison said, shaking his head as he recalled the play. "It ain't too many quarterbacks in the league that can do that.

"It's like tackling a big, powerful running back like Marshawn Lynch. ... A quarterback like Cam -- one guy, he will never get him down."

Falcons defensive end Adrian Clayborn (6-3, 280), who was left grasping for air around the 40 on Newton's third-and-8 run, will attest to that.

"He's damn near my size," Clayborn said. "When you're trying to tackle him, you just have to bring your all. I was disappointed, but stuff like that happens. He gets paid money to make plays just like we get paid to make plays, and he made one for them there."

Newton opened eyes with his career-best 35 touchdown passes this season, but his dual-threat ability as a runner is what sets him apart from most quarterbacks.

Newton rushed a career-best 132 times this season for 636 yards and 10 touchdowns. Buffalo's Tyrod Taylor (104) and Seattle's Russell Wilson (103) were a distant second and third, respectively, among quarterbacks in rush attempts. They combined for only five rushing touchdowns.

The next-best was Kansas City's Alex Smith, with 84 rushes and two touchdowns.

Newton converted 14 of 15 third- or fourth-and-1 runs into first downs. Only Philadelphia Eagles running back DeMarco Murray (13-for-13) had a higher percentage, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

Newton has converted an NFL-best 53-of-59 of those runs since he entered the league in 2011.

Teams have to prepare for that, particularly in the playoffs when Newton will be more willing to put his body at risk in attempting to reach his goal of a Super Bowl.

"He's way bigger than any running back you would face," New Orleans Saints linebacker David Hawthorne said. "It would be more like tackling a [Rob] Gronkowski or a Jimmy Graham-type [tight end], because he's about their size.

"Obviously, you gotta change your target because he's tall. So an ankle tackle to him is like a knee tackle to some people. So I think you just change your target on him. But he's definitely one of those guys that you have to actually have a tackling plan for."

Newton is similar to Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (6-5, 240) because they have the strength to shrug off defenders. The difference is that Roethlisberger often does so in the pocket; he has had more than 40 runs in a season only once in 12 seasons.

Most of Newton's runs are by design out of the read option.

"He's just as big as me almost," Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril (6-3, 260) said of Newton. "You're never used to really getting after a quarterback that big. He can make you miss, where most quarterbacks just slide or allow you to tackle them.

"He's definitely one of the more difficult quarterbacks to bring down in the league."

Trying to tackle Newton high seldom works.

"He has a nice stiff-arm," Jacksonville Jaguars safety Sergio Brown said. "If you don't have the right tackling plan or approach to him it's very, very easy to miss tackles just [because] how fast he is and how his body style is.

"It's easy for him to roll off or break through a lot of arm tackles, or if you go too high he's able to get out of those a lot.”

Newton admittedly let the foot off the gas when he took a vicious, helmet-to-helmet hit from Saints linebacker Michael Mauti while trying to score around the right side in the third quarter of a Dec. 6 win.

Instead of delivering a blow or avoiding the hit, as he often does, Newton became a target because he let up while running for the pylon. The hit was so hard that Newton had to be tested for a concussion for the first time in his career.

"There was probably a lot of people that wanted to see that happen," Newton said after the game. "I'm going to talk to my father tonight, and he's probably going to tell me what I already expect: I deserved it.

"Playing this game, you have to finish. That's what Coach harps on each and every day, and I didn't do that right there, and I deserved it."

Newton has done a better job of sliding or getting out of bounds to avoid big hits over the past two seasons. He actually took sliding lessons two years ago because he was so awkward at it. Seldom does he put his body at risk as he did on the run against New Orleans or the third-and-8 run against Atlanta.

Newton typically takes his hardest hits in the pocket. Perhaps that's why he says he feels safer running than he does dropping back.

Either way, you need to have a plan for him.

"He's not your normal quarterback," said Brown, who saw Newton run a season-high 14 times in the opener. "He's not your normal runner, so you have to put him in his own specific category when you are tackling him.

"You can't approach him like anyone else.”

Not everybody agrees on the best approach to tackling Newton. While Brown says low is the best approach, there are risks -- particularly close to the goal line.

"Cam Newton is one of those guys where, man, if you go for his legs, he's still going to lean out and get [a first down or extra yards]," Eagles linebacker Brandon Graham said. "You've got to go and tackle him up top if you're going to get him."

In that aspect, Graham said tackling Newton is different than tackling Lynch.

"He's not going to bring that power, but he's going to use some type of wiggle to get ahead and get some more yards," Graham said. "He likes to spin. He likes to bring that ball out as far as he can."

Newton got up from the 8-yard run against Atlanta like he'd just finished one of his leisurely jogs around the field during pregame warm-ups.

"That play just reinforced everything you ever thought about him," Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short said. "I've seen him get banged around a couple of times and not complain, get back up, shake it off and get back at it.

"It just reinforced everything. He's a tough dude, a guy that competes like crazy to win games."

The play against Atlanta also reinforced why Carolina defenders are so glad they don't have to tackle Newton in practice.

"He's a specimen," defensive tackle Dwan Edwards said. "It's amazing watching him do the things he's doing. It's no wonder why he's going to be the MVP this year.

"I'm glad he's on our team."

And no play epitomized how tough it is to bring Newton down more than that third-and-8 run against Atlanta.

"It was a beastly run for sure," said Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart, considered tough to bring down in his own right. "That's our leader, so it trickles down to us. It's a pretty big deal to see your quarterback do that."

Asked how many other quarterbacks in the NFL could do what Newton did against Atlanta, Stewart didn't hesitate.

"None," he said. "None."