|Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire|
|Panthers rookie Cam Newton has been sacked eight times in two games, which ranks fourth in the NFL.|
Cam Newton has been absolutely incredible passing for 400-plus yards in back-to-back games to start his NFL career. Much has been made about his remarkable performance, and rightly so. Through two games, Newton is proving more than worthy of the Panthers selecting him No. 1 overall in the draft.
But there's always room for improvement, especially in the case of a rookie QB still looking for his first win. Let's look at three things Newton needs to do to take his game to another level:
Avoid negative plays
It sounds simple, but the avoidance of turnovers and sacks is critical for an offense to operate at a high level. Newton has four interceptions (tied for most in the league) and been sacked eight times, which ranks as the fourth-highest total. Those numbers are not surprising for a first-year player adjusting to the speed of the pro game, but he has to cut down on those miscues to keep the Panthers' offense on schedule.
In cutting down interceptions, Newton must avoid the temptation of relying on his arm to fit the ball into tight spaces. Although he will occasionally get away with making those risky throws, he will soon learn defenders are also capable of making plays and those gambles can be costly. Against Arizona, Newton attempted to force the ball into Steve Smith on a slant rather than take the available receiver in the flat, and Darryl Washington came away with a critical pick.
Newton made similar mistakes against Green Bay on his third interception when he attempted to force the ball up the field to Legedu Naanee against two-man coverage rather than hit Jonathan Stewart on the checkdown. While it might seem like giving up to take the easy throw underneath, the ability to string together completions stretches the defense and makes it difficult to stop a diverse attack.
In cutting down sacks, Newton can avoid being taken down in the pocket by settling on his checkdown quicker or using his legs to avoid trouble. He has been reluctant to run despite having several opportunities and the hesitancy has allowed defenders to get to him on extended plays. It is certainly important for Newton to fully develop as a passer, but he can put more pressure on the defense by taking advantage of some of the available running lanes within the pocket.
Improve red-zone efficiency
The Panthers have struggled in the red zone despite ranking second in the league in total offense. The unit has repeatedly bogged down inside the 20 due to poor execution and missed opportunities. The Panthers have only converted 37.5 percent of their red-zone chances into touchdowns, and that includes only three of five goal-to-go situations.
Newton has contributed to those woes with his lack of anticipation, timing and awareness near the end zone. The condensed area combined with the speed of defenders requires quarterbacks to make pinpoint throws. To execute successfully, quarterbacks must anticipate the open areas and deliver before their intended receivers are out of their breaks. Any hesitation allows defenders to get into the passing lanes, which leads to deflections and break-ups.
Against Green Bay, Newton struggled against umbrella coverage in the red zone, especially inside the 10-yard line. He repeatedly hesitated before throwing and the indecision allowed the Packers to make breaks on his throws. In addition, the uncertainty resulted in the pocket collapsing, which led to a few critical sacks near the end zone.
Win on third down
It is not fair to pin all of the Panthers' third-down woes on Newton, but the fact that the team is converting fewer than 38 percent of their opportunities can be attributed to his inefficiency.
Newton has only connected on 53.3 percent of his third-down throws with one interception and four sacks. While he has certainly made some plays on the critical down (Newton has a 77-yard touchdown pass and picked up a few first downs on scrambles), he needs to find a way to help his offense sustain drives. He must continue to hone his skills reading and recognizing a blitz to quickly find the hot receiver to defeat the pressure. He also needs to work on manipulating the coverage with his eyes to free up his receivers on intermediate routes. By moving defenders out of their designated spots with head movements and pump fakes, he can create spaces for his receivers beyond the first-down marker.
Newton can also improve his team's third-down efficiency by getting better production early. That means taking the high-percentage completion on first and second down to set up manageable situations on third down. If he can develop the patience to take the checkdown to keep the offense on schedule, he will increase the Panthers' third-down conversion rate by putting them in more winnable situations.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks