If Cam Newton is Superman, Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn may be his kryptonite.
The Falcons beat the Carolina Panthers 48-33 in Week 4 of the 2016 season, and that marked the sixth time Quinn has faced off against Newton. Newton, who is 53-49-1 over the course of his career, has an all-time record of 1-5 against Dan Quinn’s defenses. That includes Quinn’s time as the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks.
Newton’s not an easy quarterback to defend. He can extend plays with his legs, gouge defenses on designed runs, and he threw for 3,837 yards and 35 touchdowns in his MVP season.
This week, the Falcons face the Panthers again, on the road in Carolina with a potential playoff bid hanging in the balance for Quinn’s team. Atlanta will need to contain Newton, who’s hitting his stride after a difficult start to the season.
Quinn said this week that he’s ready for the matchup.
“Through the years, competing against Ron (Rivera) and his team, I just thought what a tough group of guys they have,” Quinn said. “Over the last three years, they’ve showed, as division champs, their resiliency, their toughness. I love the matchup against them. I think it’s a terrific rivalry.
“Two tough teams, about the ball, battle for it, tough guys. That part, it’s really fun to be a part of.”
And luckily for the Falcons, Quinn has found ways throughout his career for his defenses to slow down Newton.
Week 1, 2013 — Seahawks 12, Panthers 7
The first time Newton faced off against a Quinn defense was Week 1 of the 2013 season, when Quinn was Seattle’s defensive coordinator. The Seahawks won a close, hard-fought game, beating Carolina 12-7. Seattle finished the season with a 13-3 record and went on to win Super Bowl XLVIII.
Carolina had a successful season, too, ending 2013 with a 12-4 record and eventually losing to the San Francisco 49ers in the Divisional round of the playoffs.
The Panthers actually held a 7-3 lead going into the half, but the Seahawks kept Carolina out of the end zone for the last 30 minutes of the game. Seattle allowed Newton just 125 passing yards and one touchdown and limited him to just 38 yards on the ground. They did so without starters Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril, and Brandon Browner.
The Seahawks got this done by pressuring Newton relentlessly, keeping him from making plays.
As the Falcons prepared to face the Panthers in Week 4 of the 2016 season, Quinn said the key against Newton was maintaining coverage on Carolina’s receivers to give the pass rush time to get home.
“Usually when there’s that type of production from the rush standpoint there’s an excellent job that’s taking place on the backend that may not show up, where a coverage was unique and they stuck on guys where the quarterback had to hold it longer than he would anticipate,” Quinn said.
Week 8, 2014 — Seahawks 13, Panthers 9
The next time Quinn’s defense faced Newton was Week 8 of the 2014 season, when the Seahawks again won a nail-biter, beating the Panthers in Carolina 13-9. Seattle held Newton to 171 passing yards and just 24 yards on the ground.
The Seahawks did this, once again, by pressuring Newton, and that led to turnovers. Newton threw one interception and also lost a fumble.
"Sometimes with a team like this you get pressure," Newton said following that game. "Being pressured you have to be willing to take chances. When you make plays you know you're labeled a genius. When you don't — and a lot of times we didn't today — it looks bad. It looks real bad."
Divisional playoffs, 2014 — Seahawks 31, Panthers 17
Bringing pressure was a blueprint that worked for Seattle against Newton and the Panthers when it mattered most, in the Divisional round of the playoffs following the 2014 season.
The Panthers finished the regular with a 7-8-1 record, somehow winning a very bad NFC South, and the Seahawks were 12-4. When these teams met in the playoffs, Seattle allowed Newton to have more success through the air — he threw for 246 yards, but the pressure got to him again.
Newton was sacked twice by the Seahawks, fumbled twice and threw two picks. One of those interceptions was a game-sealing pick-six by Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor. The other was the very first postseason interception of Richard Sherman’s career.
Week 14, 2015 — Panthers 38, Falcons 0
The outlier for Quinn was a 38-0 loss to the Panthers in Carolina in 2015. It was Quinn’s first time facing Newton as a head coach, and he inherited a lackluster Falcons defense.
In that matchup, the Falcons didn’t do any of the things that had led to so much success for Quinn against Newton with the Seahawks. The Falcons defense let Newton to throw for 265 yards and three touchdowns in the Panthers’ shutout win. This is what can happen when teams don’t get pressure on Newton.
Week 16, 2015 — Falcons 20, Panthers 13
Just a couple of weeks later, Quinn rebounded and Atlanta turned the tables as the Falcons handed Carolina its only loss of the 2015 regular season. This time, the Falcons kept Newton from extending plays with his legs, which limited Carolina’s effectiveness. Newton totaled a season-low 146 passing yards and added just 42 yards on the ground.
Carolina was still in a position to at least tie the game, or win it with a two-point conversion, and Atlanta’s defense brought pressure on the play, forcing Newton to fumble. That ended up being the last offensive possession for the Panthers.
The Falcons finished the 2015 season 8-8, while the Panthers went 15-1 and made it all the way to Super Bowl 50, which they lost to the Denver Broncos. The Panthers were the better team that year, but Dan Quinn was able to best Newton in that second matchup.
Week 4, 2016 — Falcons 48, Panthers 33
This season, with the Falcons offense off to a strong start in 2016, Atlanta’s defense was once again able to stymie Carolina’s offensive production.
Containing Newton before he has a chance to make a play was a key factor for the Falcons.
“I think that’s what makes him more unique than most quarterbacks,” Quinn said before that matchup. “There are a lot of people that have some form of read option as part of their package. I would say they’re one of the most unique ones, that has him, not just part of the option package, but as the No. 1 runner in the play.”
Taking away that option helped Atlanta outscore the Panthers and get the win.
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Quinn acknowledges that Newton’s versatility makes him difficult to defend.
“Sometimes there’s read plays where ‘OK, I can decide to hand it off or give it based on a look,’ and then there’s other times that are strictly designed for him to be involved as the runner,” Quinn said in the week leading up to Atlanta’s Week 4 matchup with the Panthers.
While Newton presents a challenge for any defense, Quinn seems to have Newton figured out, and the Falcons coach may have provided a framework for teams to succeed against last year’s league MVP.
After a rocky start to 2016, the Panthers are 6-8 and hanging on to their playoff hopes by a thread after a Monday Night Football win over Washington. Carolina is 3-2 over the past five games, and the team has an opportunity to play spoiler to the Falcons team that handed the Panthers their only regular-season loss in 2015.
The Falcons are 9-5 and finish the season with two crucial divisional matchups. After the Panthers, Atlanta will welcome the New Orleans Saints to the Georgia Dome in Week 17. With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hot on the Falcons’ heels in the NFC South race, Atlanta will hope Quinn really does hold the key to shutting down Newton.