Cam Newton poses a dilemma for Lions defense


Chris McCosky/ The Detroit News

Allen Park— So if you are the Lions on Sunday, do you blitz Cam Newton? Don’t be too hasty with your answer.

On the plus side, the Titans last week were able to confuse and frustrate Newton, Carolina’s prized rookie quarterback, with some well-disguised and well-timed blitz packages.

The Lions had good success blitzing another young, athletic quarterback — Denver’s Tim Tebow — three weeks ago.

But Newton is different. He’s faster than Tebow. Newton covers 40 yards in 4.5 seconds, and he’s more elusive.

“His running style is similar to Vince Young,” defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. “He’s big and he has those long strides. He can really hurt you in the open field.”

More to the point, Newton throws the ball better and more willingly than Tebow.

And, when you blitz a young quarterback, you sometimes bail him out because you take away his guesswork and streamline his options.

“It’s pretty simple,” Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said. “When you blitz, you are playing man-to-man. He just picks out his guy and fires it to Steve Smith or (tight end Greg Olsen).”

Take into consideration also the Lions aren’t a blitzing team. They are built to bring pressure with their four down linemen and they are very good at that. Twenty-two of their 26 sacks this year have come from defensive linemen.

Throw all that into the equation and it’s not an easy call.

Cunningham, naturally, wasn’t giving away the game plan, but he did acknowledge the unique challenge Newton presents.

“He’s a powerful human being,” he said. “He looks like a defensive end. Like our guy, Matt Stafford, people will watch out before they mess with him again (after he rag-dolled Bears cornerback D.J. Moore last week). Cam’s the same way.”

“They flex him out sometimes at wide receiver and play out of the wildcat. I saw him block (Tim) Jennings from Chicago. He knocked him down and when Jennings tried to get back up he knocked him down again. We are dealing with a heck of a quarterback.”

Newton, the first pick in the draft, already has thrown for 2,605 yards — the most ever by a rookie through nine games. He’s thrown 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, and run for 374 yards and seven touchdowns.

“The Titans did a real good job,” said middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, a former Titan. “They did a ton of zone blitzing where he has one look and you drop into another look. They were able to get their hands on some balls and get five sacks. They had him scrambling and they were able to get to him.”

“That’s what you have to do to him — bring pressure and make it a long day.”

When Newton looked at the Lions on film this week, he saw a defense that can put extreme pressure on quarterbacks without blitzing. From the sound of it, that worries him more than facing a blitzing team.

“They’ve got an arsenal,” Newton told the Charlotte Observer about the Lions. “They get after the quarterback. They create (pressure). They wreak havoc…They’re getting a lot of help from their down linemen. That’s very rare nowadays. These guys are unique because those four down linemen wreak havoc. What that allows is everybody’s in coverage.

“And when that quarterback gets pressure, there’s only so much he can do. …”

You’re not going to take shots downfield if you’ve got pressure. I’m sorry, you’re just not going to do it. We know that’s a big thing coming into this week.”

The Lions have been able to stifle the other mobile quarterbacks they’ve faced this season — Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman, Minnesota’s Donovan McNabb and Tebow. And in all three games, Tulloch was used as a spy, assigned to track the quarterback wherever he went on the field.

The Lions aren’t saying if they will use a spy on Newton, but the Panthers are expecting it.

“The spy thing, people have done that to us in the past and people are going to do it to us in the future,” offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski told the Charlotte Observer. “It didn’t really have an effect on us.”

Lions defensive end Cliff Avril put it this way: “We don’t change for them; we try to make them change for us.”

Bottom line: Blitzing a dynamic talent like Newton comes with an extremely high risk-reward ratio. It can make you or break you on any given play.

“It’s a difficult task, that’s why I haven’t gotten much sleep,” Cunningham said. “When he scrambles, he can throw the ball on the money. But there are also times when he gets erratic. That’s when we have to get the football.”

chris.mccosky@detnews.com

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