Is Cam Newton's Rushing Ability Back?
Cam Newton had himself a day on Sunday.
Against the Cincinnati Bengals, Newton had one of the most impressive, put-the-team-on-my-back performances this side of Greg Jennings.
He let it fly and had a good day through the air — 29 of 46 for 284 yards — but his biggest impact came with his production on the ground.
Heading into Week 6, quarterback runs hadn’t been part of Carolina’s offensive game plan. Newton had only 12 rushing attempts in his previous 4 games, and they weren’t very efficient, according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP quantifies player production and identifies how many points a player adds, or sometimes subtracts, from his team's net point totals.
Newton actually took away point from the Panthers in his first 12 carries. Through 4 games, Newton tallied a Rushing NEP of -0.38 and a Rushing NEP per play of -0.03. This means he cost the Panthers not even a half of a point, but his rushing did not contribute positively to the Panthers offense. More concerning was Netwon’s success rate of just 50 percent. Of the 12 rushes, only 6 had a positive impact on his NEP.
With a questionable offensive line and a return from a rib injury, it’s not much of a surprise as to why either the Panthers wanted to keep Newton from running or why Newton himself had been hesitant. Throughout the game against Cincinnati, those concerns disappeared.
Adjusting to the Defense
Newton finished the day with 17 rushes for 107 yards and a touchdown, but his involvement in the run game did not appear to be part of the original game plan. Of Newton's 17 runs, 15 came in the second half and overtime. And 11 of those 15 came in the fourth quarter or later.
By the end of the first half, Newton had rushed only twice. Establishing the run game early did appear to be a focus for Carolina but not necessarily with Newton. On the opening touchdown drive, the Panthers had eight pass plays and seven run plays, including a Newton 2-yard sneak on 3rd-and-1 from his own 45, netting the Panthers a fresh set of downs.
Entering Week 6, Cincinnati was the 31st-ranked rush defense according to Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play. The New England Patriots had exposed the Bengals in their rout the previous week, and Carolina appeared inclined to follow suit. However, that plan in the first half involved a lot of Fozzy Whittaker and Darrin Reaves.
The second rushing attempt of the half was a read-option play with just over seven and a half minutes remaining in the second quarter. It was a 2nd-and-10 play from the Cincinnati 20-yard line on which Newton kept the ball and gained 4 yards.
At halftime, Newton had two attempts for six yards, not quite the makings of a big day on the ground. There were some adjustments made at halftime.
Whittaker finished the day with 9 carries for 25 yards, a 2.8 yards per carry average. Reaves was even less successful with 8 carries for 15 yards, 1.9 yards per carry. It was clear if the Panthers were to have success with their top three running backs injured — DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert — the quarterback would have to be more involved.
That started in the third quarter when Newton had 4 rushing attempts for 31 yards and a touchdown. Two runs — including the touchdown — were on designed quarterback keepers. A draw gained seven yards on 2nd-and-20 late in the quarter, and the touchdown run came from the 12-yard line on a power run that was too immediate to be a draw play. The other two attempts were on read-options.
The read-option would become Carolina’s most successful run play late in the game as Cincinnati continually failed to cover Newton on the possibility of a keeper. That would be understandable for the first attempt or two in the first quarter, but Carolina ran the read-option with Newton keeping the ball seven times from the fourth quarter on with the play losing yards only once.
On Carolina’s overtime drive, Newton kept the ball on a read-option four times. The smallest gain was 3 yards on a 2nd-and-13, but the next play was another read for a gain of 12 and a first down. In terms of Sunday’s game, the option success makes Ron Rivera’s decision to kick a field goal in overtime slightly questionable. Newton was rushing the ball so effectively that he had raised is Rushing NEP from -0.38 to 9.60 (0.33 per play).
Newton’s rushing attempts broke down to 10 read-option keepers for 59 yards, 3 designed quarterback runs for 24 yards and a touchdown, 2 quarterback sneaks for 6 yards, and just 2 scrambles for 18 yards.
What Does This Mean?
A big takeaway from this could be that Newton finally feels 100 percent recovered from the various injuries he has had. Newton missed Week 1 because of a rib injury but also had surgery on his ankle during the offseason. A healthy Newton would be a great thing for the Panthers offense, a unit that ranked just 20th in the league in Adjusted NEP per play. Newton's legs helped carry them up the ranks on Sunday, and the Panthers are now 13th in the metric, which is to say that they are the 13th-best offense in football.
Next up on the Panthers schedule are the Green Bay Packers, another positive match-up for Newton. The Packers, through Week 6, rank 30th in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play. Dom Capers' defense still looks like it has never seen a read-option play run before, even after he famously spent the summer at Texas A&M studying the option after Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers ran all over Green Bay. Capers might need a few more semesters and a bachelor’s degree before the Packers would be suited to stop a mobile quarterback on the ground. If Carolina is again shorthanded in the backfield, Newton options could be a very efficient play.
After heading to Seattle the following week, the Panthers will play the Saints on Thursday Night Football in Week 9. New Orleans currently ranks 27th against the run on a per-play basis, according to our metrics
It’s not likely we’ll see Newton run 17 times in a game again, but his ability to do so against the Bengals is promising for his health, his production and the Panthers offense moving forward.