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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Perception of ‘evil’ Lions doesn’t match reality


Chris McCosky/ The Detroit News

Allen Park — For a 5-2 football team, there sure are a lot of critics trying to pick the Lions apart.

Even the league’s own website got into the fray. They have billed the Lions game Sunday against the Broncos as Good vs. Evil — the good being Tim Tebow and the bad being Ndamukong Suh.

“I don’t know if that’s appropriate,” coach Jim Schwartz said.

It’s not appropriate, or accurate. But don’t think it won’t be used as a motivator this week. Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham posted the headline and artwork from the NFL.com piece in the defensive meeting room.

“Yeah, I guess evil’s coming to town,” middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. “The media likes to portray us as a dirty team, but that’s not the way we play. We’re just physical, we play hard and we hold everybody accountable.”

The critics aren’t letting the facts get in their way. Case in point — the accusations made by two Falcons players last week. No matter how much evidence is compiled — video and audio — that Suh and Cliff Avril were several yards away from fallen Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and didn’t kick him or taunt him, the perception they did won’t go away.

Lions myths are mounting by the week. It might be a good time to debunk a few of them.

Myth : Suh is going through a sophomore slump and he isn’t having the kind of impact he had last season.

Sports Illustrated poured gas on this one, naming Suh to their midseason all-underachieving team. It doesn’t pay to get too upset with these types of lists. Their intent is to stir debate.

But there is a growing perception that Suh is somehow not impacting games like he did last season.

“He is playing some kind of football and if anybody wants to deny that, they don’t know what they’re talking about, and probably never will,” Cunningham said. “He’s playing outstanding football.”

Critics point to his three sacks and 22 tackles as evidence that his impact is less. Certainly they are off his 10-sack, 66-tackle pace last season. But for one, those numbers don’t begin to measure his impact; and two, to expect him to duplicate or surpass 10 sacks is unrealistic.

“You can’t measure everything on a statistic like a sack, because I can take each stat that you have and turn it upside down for you,” Cunningham said. “He’s been very productive, very explosive. He’s played more physical this year than he did last year.”

Here’s a mini-myth: The Lions sack numbers are down. Really? They have 17 as a team, four behind the league leaders.

Schwartz just shook his head at the SI jab at Suh.

“He’s an impact player,” he said. “Everybody has a plan for him. Everybody tries to take him out. We are very satisfied with his production. He plays hard and he affects the game. We will worry about what our expectations and evaluations are, not those from people outside this building.”

Myth : The Lions can’t stop the run.

This one is a little trickier to defend. The Lions do rank 29th against the run, allowing 129.4 per game.

They have also allowed three consecutive 100-plus games — Atlanta’s Michael Turner (122), San Francisco’s Frank Gore (141) and Chicago’s Matt Forte (116).

“According to a lot of people, we can’t stop the run,” Tulloch said. “That is false. We’ve had some lapses lately but we are back in tune to what we need to do.”

What would be a more accurate criticism is the Lions have given up too many big plays in the run game.

Turner broke a 50-yarder. Gore accumulated 102 of his 141 yards in two carries.

There have been some major breakdowns in the back end — either at outside linebacker or safety.

But to say their run defense is bad seems harsh.

“That’s everybody else’s opinion,” Suh said. “I personally don’t think you can line up and run the ball on us all day. That’s one of the things we pride ourselves on. We’ve let out some big runs, which makes it look a lot worse than it really is.

“But perception is reality some times.”

Here’s a reality: Nine times the Lions have stoned a third-and-1 or a fourth-and-1 play. Suh stopped a third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 back-to-back against the Bears.

They stopped a fourth-and-1 at the goal line in Dallas, a fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter in Minnesota, a third-and-1 in the fourth quarter against the Chiefs, and a huge fourth-and-1 from their 11 in the fourth quarter at Tampa.

They can stop the run.

Myth : Matthew Stafford struggles to throw accurately on underneath routes.

This one came out of the blue and from a surprising critic — former quarterback Kurt Warner. He told NFL Network the reason the Lions’ offense struggled the last two weeks was Stafford’s inability to connect on those short passes in front of the linebackers.

A quick review of the numbers shows that Stafford has completed 73.5 percent of his throws behind the line of scrimmage (36 for 49 for 204 yards) and 67.4 percent of his throws from 1 to 10 yards (91-for-135, 805 yards).

Combine those and he’s hitting 69 percent of his underneath routes with five of his 16 touchdowns and two of his four interceptions.

It’s not Tom Brady-like by any measure, but it’s hardly a red flag. If Warner or anybody else wants to nit-pick at the sixth-best quarterback in the NFL, he could have pointed out his struggles with passes in the 21- to 30-yard range.

He’s hit only 4 of 16 there.

Stafford has struggled the last two weeks, no question. But to single out his accuracy on underneath routes seems random — just like a lot of the attempts to deconstruct the Lions’ 5-2 start.

chris.mccosky@detnews.com

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Lions might appeal draft penalties from tampering charges


Chris McCosky / The Detroit News

Indianapolis — Lions coach Jim Schwartz, addressing the media at the NFL Scouting Combine on Thursday, indicated the Lions might appeal the league’s ruling on tampering charges filed against them by the Kansas City Chiefs.

“I think that too much has been said about something that should be confidential,” Schwartz said. “I am disappointed so much has come out.

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“We have received that notification and I believe firmly in our case and that they reached the wrong conclusion. We still have some options we can pursue.”

The Lions have until Monday to file an appeal.

After a six-month investigation, the league ordered the Lions to forfeit their seventh-round pick in the 2011 draft and switch fifth-round picks with the Chiefs — losing the ninth pick and gaining the 23rd.

The tampering incident involved, at least partly, some comments made by defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham in reference to then-Chiefs safety Jarrad Page. Commissioner Roger Goodell ruled that the Lions made “impermissible contact with a player (or his agent).”

“An appeal is one of our options,” Schwartz said. “But, again, I will leave it at that. Too much has been said about this already.”

Schwartz was also loathe to discuss the rehab of quarterback Matthew Stafford’s surgically-repaired throwing shoulder. Schwartz was asked if he was worried that a potential lockout might interrupt the rehab process.

“Our rehab schedule is the way it has been with all of our players and hopefully we will continue on that track,” he said. “You are talking about ‘if.’ We’re not counting on ifs. We are going ahead the way we did it in the past. I feel optimistic he’ll have a good rehab.”