Panthers’ Newton prepares for trip home to Atlanta

The Carolina Panthers have embraced all of what Cam Newton can

do.

The rookie quarterback has not only put up record numbers

passing, but also has been the Panthers’ primary weapon in the red

zone. He has rushed for five of the team’s six touchdowns leaving

him one shy of Chris Weinke’s single-season franchise record.

Newton will get to showcase his NFL versatility in front of

family and friends when he returns home to face the Atlanta Falcons

Sunday at the Georgia Dome – not far from where he grew up in

College Park, Ga., and later arrived on the national stage at

Auburn.

When asked if he’s been bombarded with ticket requests for his

return home, Newton simply smiled and said, ”StubHub.”

He downplayed the homecoming, saying he has more important

things on his mind – like winning.

”We’re real close, but close doesn’t get you nowhere,” Newton

said, referring to the Panthers’ 1-4 start despite being in each

game until the end. ”And that’s probably the most disheartening

thing, knowing how close we are to getting that win and putting us

back on the map. Emotionally, I think we just need a win to hang

our hat on, to say we beat this team.”

Still, Newton’s popularity has skyrocketed after an incredible

first month of the season in which he was named NFL Offensive

Rookie of the Month for September.

In five games he’s had a hand in 12 of the team’s 13 touchdowns

– seven passing and five rushing – and ignited an offense that only

found the end zone 16 times all of 2010.

The Panthers have gone out their way to use Newton’s

athleticism, making him the primary goal-line weapon,

Of the 27 plays the Panthers have had inside their opponent’s

10-yard line, Newton has carried the ball 15 times, all of those

coming on designed running plays. By comparison, the ”double

trouble” duo of running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan

Stewart have combined for three carries. Newton has thrown nine

times inside the 10, completing three for touchdowns.

”That’s one place where the field is so compact it’s hard to

get good numbers,” Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski

said. ”So with a quarterback as a runner the numbers even

out.”

It’s simple math.

When a quarterback hands off to a running back in that situation

it becomes nine blockers against 11 defenders. But when you have a

quarterback like Newton it becomes 10 against 11.

That makes it difficult to defend, according to Falcons coach

Mike Smith.

”It creates a lot of issues because in your preparation for

most teams, more often than not, you don’t have to account for the

quarterback so you can have an extra guy,” Smith said. ”When you

have an extra runner with the quarterback you have an extra

blocker. Normally you don’t discount it 100 percent, but the

majority of the time the quarterback doesn’t carry the ball and

that really is the issue it creates for coordinators.

”If they’re in the red zone, they’re creating plays where they

can have a hat on a hat and not have an unblocked defender.”

The Panthers also have used Newton in other ways.

Two weeks ago, they split him out as a wide receiver with

Williams in the Wildcat. Last week they introduced the option and

it worked extremely well. His first pitchout went to Williams, who

raced 69 yards for a touchdown. They ran the same play later and

Newton kept the ball, running for 13 yards.

”In that set obviously he’s a threat as a runner and when a

defense has to account for a quarterback as a runner it makes it

more difficult for them,” Chudzinski said. ”The 69-yard touchdown

run was a part of that. I think running Cam is improving our

running game with the other guys as well.”

Over the past two weeks, the Panthers have averaged 165.5 yards

per game on the ground, up from 84 per game in the first three

weeks.

That’s due in part to opponents beginning to respect Newton’s

arm, forcing defenses to drop safeties into coverage rather than

cheat to play the run. Newton has thrown for 1,610 yards in five

games, which is more than backup Jimmy Clausen threw for in 11

starts last year.

”It’s shifted how people defend us,” Chudzinski said. ”I

think it will continue to go back and forth. And that’s one of the

reasons we’re striving to be balanced in our attack. The first

couple of games (defenses) were heavy on loading up on the box and

the last next two we had more opportunities to run the ball and get

some better looks.”

Now the Panthers just have to find a way to win games.