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Cam Newton is earning the MVP award in the red zone

The Panthers quarterback has been great all over the field, but what he's doing inside the 20 is what makes Newton's team so unstoppable.

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A lot of numbers get talked about when it comes to Cam Newton and his contention for the MVP award, but his red zone performance this season is one of the strongest arguments. Newton is doing more inside opponents' 20-yard lines than anyone else in the NFL.

Newton has a league-high 31 combined touchdowns (with zero picks) in the red zone this year, according to STATS Inc., a performance that led NFL Network analyst and former fullback Michael Robinson to say last week that Newton "may be the best red-zone threat our game has ever seen."

The Panthers moved 14-0 on the year on Sunday as they defeated the Giants. Cam's red zone ability was at the forefront of New York's preparation. Giants head coach Tom Coughlin told reporters before the game why Newton is so dangerous inside the 20. "He can do so many things," Coughlin said. "He's not just a quarterback who drops back and throws, he's not just a guy who runs the naked (bootleg) on the corner and he's not just a guy who will sprint out with the ball. ... There are an awful lot of things that you have to defend. When he does run he makes yardage and he's a difficult man to tackle."

Because of the dual-threat nature of Newton's game and because of Newton's development as a quarterback, teams are forced to defend everything a little bit differently, and the results have been amazing. The Panthers have scored touchdowns on nearly 67 percent of their trips inside the red zone (a huge improvement over their number last year -- 48.1 percent -- even without Kelvin Benjamin), and they've done it with a wide array of schemes and concepts.

Sky Cam

We all can picture Newton taking a snap and simply diving over the pile himself for a score, but the thing about Cam is that he can call his own number from five or 10 yards away with similar effect.

His abilities as a true running threat make the math involved in playing defense pretty damn hard.

Bill Belichick explained the basic concept.

"When you put a (typical slow, passing) quarterback under center, you lose a blocker, you lose a gap, offensively. You basically play with 10 men on offense. But when the quarterback is one of the runners, whether it's single-wing or veer or wishbone, the defense runs out of people to defend you."

Vic Fangio echoed this.

"It just becomes a numbers game. Your typical run, the quarterback hands off and it's now their 10 against your 11. Now when he's a potential runner, it's their 11 against your 11.

It becomes hat on hat. Blow up the guy in front of you and they run out of people to send back. This is perfect for the Panthers' nasty offensive line. Below, against the Titans, it's a true 11-on-11, as Carolina just lines everyone up in one spot before Newton powers through for the score.

In this case, the Titans actually do an alright job of getting into position to stop it, but as Coughlin said above, he's a tough human being to tackle.

That showed up against the Cowboys as well. Here, Newton drops back as if to pass, but then follows his lead blocker (running back Jonathan Stewart) up the gut, barreling through a tackle attempt for the score.

He's just so big and strong. You've got linebackers going low to tackle him. Don't see that a lot with quarterbacks.

Running backs in the passing game

In addition to using Cam as a runner, the Panthers really like to use their running backs in the passing game once into the red zone. It pairs extremely well with play action, and is especially useful against blitzes. Here, Carolina uses what's called "scat protection" (a five-man protection scheme) and Mike Tolbert becomes Newton's go-to out of the backfield in the case of a blitz.

Newton sees the blitz, and knowing he has to get the ball out quickly with the protection scheme they have drawn up, hits Tolbert out on the wing. This is great awareness and execution by Newton, and I also just wanted another excuse to show Tolbert doing The Carlton.

The power of play action

Newton's unique ability to run and dive over the pile means that when Carolina gets closer to the goal line, the more they stack up into the middle of the field to prepare for that. It means that play action becomes an excellent countermeasure.

Here, instead of calling a jump over the line or a dive by the running back (which Tennessee is loading up to stop), the Panthers dial up a play-action fake and the Titans forget to defend Ed Dickson.

Like taking candy from a baby.


This is in the same category of play action, really, but one thing that I absolutely love about Carolina's offense is their use of misdirection on the offensive line and with their running backs. Watch how the pulling right guard and trailing running back (No. 35 - Tolbert) affect Washington's linebackers. Just absolutely duped them.

Beautiful design, and Stewart waltzes in unmolested.

Similarly, watch Mike Tolbert below -- instead of picking up a blitz in pass pro, which is what fullbacks often do in this situation -- he passes that rusher off to the tailback and releases into a shallow route. This means the safety in coverage on running backs out of the backfield is way behind (he may have been able to pick up the running back out of the backfield, but is well behind the fullback by the time he diagnoses the play). Easy money.

These types of plays are awesome change-ups for power-running teams like the Panthers. Keeps the defense guessing.

The triple option!

Not many teams still use the triple option. In fact, i think just one team uses the triple option: The Panthers.

It starts with a read-option mesh point hand off option for Newton (with the diving fullback). In this case, Newton is reading the defensive tackle in front of him. If he doesn't hand off, he then can run -- which he does in this case after the defensive tackle tracks the running back.

Newton now has another option: Keep it and try to score, or toss it out to Jonathan Stewart. With the defense already stretched thin in defending the read-option fake to the right, they're forced to honor Newton's running ability, which leaves Stewart open outside.

Love that play.

Cam's just throwing lasers

So far I've given a lot of credit to the Panthers' scheming for their success in the red zone, but it shouldn't be understated that Newton is absolutely slanging it this year too.

A few examples:

Here, after manipulating the linebackers (No. 51 in particular) with his shoulders and eyes, he zings a pass into Greg Olson. The play fake to the left was extremely important, because it kept No. 51 out of the throwing lane.

There's some mustard on that pass.

Here's another beautiful pass to Devin Funchess, which asked Newton to thread the needle between several defenders.

Of course, his most impressive pass all year might've been last week against the Falcons.

After determining that Atlanta was in man, this route combination between the running back and tight end Ed Dickson works like a charm. Newton throws the ball on an absolute dime through several defenders, and Dickson makes a great catch. On the broadcast view, it's impressive.

On the replay, it's infinitely more impressive.

I mean, when you're on, you're on.


At the end of the day, the MVP award is mostly irrelevant. Newton is playing the best football of his career and his Panthers haven't lost a regular season game in well over a year. Even without any top-tier offensive weapons at his disposal, Newton has made the Panthers a juggernaut in the most important area of the field. They're getting touchdowns, not field goals, and this will become extremely important during the playoffs when weather is a factor and the games are tighter.

Newton's rare combination of passing prowess and his ability to run makes the Panthers nearly impossible to defend consistently once they're inside your 20-yard line. It gives them a chance at that elusive perfect season.

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SB Nation presents: Cam Newton was an indestructible superhero on Sunday