The Tennessee Titans’ strategy was simple – put on spy on Cam Newton and try to confuse him.
It worked to perfection.
Tennessee’s defense left the rookie shaking his head in disbelief after its 30-3 rout of the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
The Titans (5-4) sacked Newton five times, intercepted him once and took away Carolina’s downfield passing game. Carolina came in ranked fifth in the league on offense and first in plays of 20-plus yards, but the Titans limited Newton to 209 yards passing and held Steve Smith’s, the NFC’s leading receiver, to 33 yards.
Chris Johnson ran for a season-high 130 yards and scored a touchdown, most of his yards coming in the second half after the Tennessee defense had set the tone.
The Titans sacked Newton four times on first down and put the Panthers in several third-and-long situations.
”(Newton) holds the ball,” said defensive tackle Jurrell Casey. ”If a quarterback is going to hold onto the ball like that, we’re going to get to him. We kept him in the pocket. He couldn’t do anything but sit there. Having the spy on him meant he couldn’t run, and our guys got to him.”
After the game, Newton still seemed confused over what the Titans did exactly to disrupt what had been a potent offense throughout the first half of the season. Newton said he couldn’t remember playing quarterback in a game in which his team didn’t score a touchdown.
”Never, ever, ever,” Newton said.
Newton’s longest completion was 19 yards, and the Panthers failed to pick up a first down on seven of their 13 possessions.
”This is embarrassing, man,” Newton repeated three times while shaking his head. ”This is as poor of a performance as a team as I’ve ever seen. Poor performance by myself. There’s no pointing fingers without looking at yourself and asking yourself what you could have done better. I know I could have done a lot of things better. It’s a reality check, that’s what it is. ”
The Panthers (2-7) came in averaging 415 yards and more than 23 points per game behind a big-play offense, but Tennessee’s defense completely took away their downfield passing game – and just about everything else.
At times Newton rolled out in the pocket and couldn’t find anyone to throw the ball to.
”The thing is, Cam has the ability to extend plays, then slingshot one down the field 50 or 60 yards,” said Titans safety Jonathan Babineaux. ”We knew coming into the game they had some down-the-field threats, and we couldn’t let No. 1 get comfortable. We did a good job of harassing him and making sure he didn’t have time to get back on his feet and make accurate throws.”
The Titans finally got Johnson involved in the offense.
He came in with only 366 yards rushing, but had 174 yards from scrimmage and eclipsed 100 yards rushing for the first time since Oct. 2. Johnson had 104 yards rushing in the second half and scored his second touchdown of the season on a 1-yard run late in the fourth quarter.
Johnnson’s touchdown was set up by Matt Hasselbeck, who scampered 21 yards on a quarterback bootleg before getting knocked out of bounds at the Carolina 1 without much of an effort from the veteran to score.
As Johnson entered the media room, Hasselbeck walked out and yelled, ”Fantasy points!”
”Matt told me I was on his fantasy team, and that he stepped out at the 1 to help me get in the end zone,” Johnson said with a laugh. ”So everyone has to thank Matt and all the fantasy owners.”
Said Titans coach Mike Munchak: ”We finally gave him carries. This was one of those games we have been waiting for.”
The Titans piled up 172 yards on the ground.
”We were on the same page as an offense, executing plays,” Johnson said. ”Some of the plays we ran in the second half, we’d run in the first half and didn’t have a lot of success. There are those situations as an offensive line and as a running back to get more of those opportunities to run the same plays, and eventually, it will work out.”
The Panthers appeared to be sleepwalking early on after coming off a bye week.
After Carolina went three-and-out on its first possession, Marc Mariani returned Jason Baker’s punt 79 yards for a 7-0 lead. It was the third long punt return for a touchdown allowed by the Panthers this season and the 11th against Baker, the most of any active punter in the NFL.
Tennessee quickly made it 14-0 on its first possession when Damian Williams turned a short pass from Hasselbeck into a 43-yard scoring play after defensive backs Sherrod Martin and Darius Butler missed tackles. Williams finished with 107 yards receiving.
Hasselbeck was 15 of 27 for 219 yards with his only mistake, a third-quarter interception, leading to a Carolina field goal. Even then, the Tennessee defense held after the Panthers took over deep in Titans territory.
Five of Carolina’s eight first-half drives ended in three-and-outs and two others were halted by costly mistakes by tight end Greg Olsen.
Olsen fumbled in the red zone early on then dropped an easy 16-yard reception late in the first half that would have made for a short field goal attempt by Olindo Mare. Instead, Mare missed the ensuing 50-yard kick on the final play of the first half, and the Titans took a 17-0 lead into the locker room.
”We didn’t do anything right,” Olsen said. ”There isn’t one thing that we can hang our hat on. It was just an overall pathetic effort by us.”
NOTES: Rob Bironas’ 38-yard field goal in the second quarter was the 200th of his career. … Chris Gamble’s third-quarter interception was the 26th of his career, giving him the Panthers all-time franchise record… The Panthers are 4-23 over their last 27 games.