By Chris Cluff
If Russell Wilson were six inches taller, he would be Cam Newton: a mammoth, rocket-armed, fancy-footed quarterback unlike any the NFL has right now.
If Wilson had the same 6-foot-5 frame, he probably would have been a top-three draft pick this year. Newton was the No. 1 pick last year, even though many fans doubted he had what it took to become a perennial Pro Bowl player.
Newton more than lived up to his draft status as a rookie, setting NFL records for quarterbacks with 706 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground. He also threw for a rookie-record 4,051 yards in a jaw-dropping, eye-opening season that had everyone saying, “That was pretty awesome,” and skeptics saying, “But we won’t believe it until you do it again.”
Well, even though defenses are prepared for him this season, he’s doing the same stuff.
Through four games, he has 167 rushing yards and four touchdowns — putting him on a similar pace to his rookie numbers. He also is completing 63.6 percent of his passes and has thrown for 1,013 yards and four touchdowns.
This dual threat is something the Seahawks’ stellar defense has not seen yet. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Dallas’ Tony Romo are mobile QBs, but they run only out of necessity. Newton runs by design, as the Panthers utilize the read option he ran at Auburn.
“Where we’ve been rocking along and everything has kind of been the way we have set it up to be, this is different; this changes,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said in his media briefing Wednesday, via Seahawks.com. “The preparation that it takes to prepare for this style of quarterback is really different than other guys. He’s just an amazing football player.
“He’s a big stud who likes running the football, and they’ve put that into their offense,” Carroll said. “So he does carry the ball quite a bit and he runs very aggressively for a quarterback. The option stuff that they run creates a whole other level of problems.”
If the Panthers get their running game going behind Newton, Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, it will open up play-action deep balls to Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell. Newton already has hit passes of 66 (Smith) and 51 yards (Louis Murphy) this season.
“He has just extraordinary accuracy on long balls and deeper developing-type of routes. So that is an issue,” Carroll said.
Indeed, Newton is averaging 9.47 yards per attempt — easily the best in the league. But he hasn’t gone against a defense nearly as good as Seattle yet. Carolina first has to run it against Seattle’s No. 2 defense to make those passes available and effective.
Newton also has thrown five interceptions, and the Seahawks surely will be hoping to snare a couple themselves. Seattle has just three so far, which is a far cry from last year, when they were fourth in the NFL with 22.
The Seattle offense, meanwhile, figures to try to play keep-away from Newton by running the ball themselves.
Marshawn Lynch leads the NFL with 423 yards, and the Panthers have been pretty bad against the run, yielding nearly 135 yards per game. That is a recipe for Seattle success.
The Seahawks will see first-hand the player they would have taken with their first-round pick if Carolina had not drafted him ninth overall: linebacker Luke Kuechly. Although the Panthers have given up big rushing days, Kuechly has played fairly well. He is fifth on the team with 26 tackles and first with five stops for loss.
The Panthers just don’t have good enough players in the middle of the line, which is why they have been getting gashed by the run at times. They figure to get gouged by Seattle, too.
The question is whether Newton and the offense can make enough big plays against Seattle’s defense.
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Chris Cluff worked as a sports editor and writer for The Seattle Times for 11 years and has written two books on the Seattle Seahawks. Since leaving the Times, he has written about the Seahawks and Seattle sports for Bleacher Report and the blog he shares with a fellow sportswriter, outsidethepressbox.com. His work can be found on Examiner.com.