But I was a little curious how the Seattle Seahawks never managed to sack Cam Newton in their win over the Carolina Panthers Sunday night, because the scenario seemed set up for Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett and Seattle’s other hunting dogs to devour the cat-astrophe that is the Panthers’ offensive line in late 2016. With 31 quarterback takedowns before week 12, the Seahawks had been tops in the league in that category entering its game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week but have since been caught up to or passed by five NFL teams.
They didn’t get to bring down Jameis Winston at all in that game either, the first time Seattle failed to find its way into the paper bag since week 3 against the San Francisco 49ers. But with Bennett missing his fifth straight game after knee surgery and also one of his understudies, Damontre Moore, out with a foot ailment, the Seahawks were especially thin at defensive end against the Buccaneers, had to move guys around and got stuck giving defensive line reps to Will Tukuafu and relying on recent signee John Jenkins for 22 percent of the snaps at tackle. Which is not even to mention the coverage deficiencies, with two starting members of the secondary and the strongside linebacker out, that probably contributed to Seattle not being its patently aggressive self.
All that stuff was supposed to be rectified Sunday—literally all of it, since even Mike Morgan came off football’s version of the disabled list—and with the Seahawks playing in prime time in the abode of the 12th man, you expected a noisy, frightening night for Newton. Carolina in fact surrendered four procedure penalties on offense, placing it regularly in passing situations, and spent a timeout to avoid another delay of game in the first half—so the distraction was in effect. And, sure, Newton’s a mobile guy (he even has a scooter), but he had not escaped a game without a sack yet this season—not counting the one he missed with a concussion in week five. Indeed Newton in 2016 has been famous for how much he’s been hit—even before the Panthers lost multiple starters on its offensive line to injury: The Minnesota Vikings sacked him eight times in week three.
Bennett promised that “quarterbacks should be scared” upon his return. Avril has an ongoing incentive to supply new homes to underprivileged families in Haïti. Frank Clark even vowed after watching Newton in the Super Bowl to teach the Carolina quarterback the difference between wanting grapes and eating mud, and presumably had been looking forward to this specific matchup for 10 months.
So with all those combined factors, added to a situation—leading by 20+ points the entire second half—that generally grants a defense license to kill the quarterback, it does seem surprising for Seattle to fail to corral Newton even once. So when I looked at the film that was the first thing I aimed to find out.
Now, it’s not as if Avril and the Seahawks’ rushers weren’t getting to Newton at all, or the pass rush was never effective. NFL stats credit Seattle with four official “QB hits” and though the league doesn’t chart overall pressure rate the Seahawks held Newton for the game to the lowest completion rate of any opposing quarterback this season, 43.8 percent; as Jacson Bevens artfully put it Newton did frequently alter throws and throwing angles with Seattle defenders “constantly nipping at him like the final shards of a nightmare”.
But it’s those same near-misses that reciprocally plague the dreams of Seahawks fans for fear that future playoff quarterbacks (Dak Prescott, say, or, who knows, Winston again—even Eli Vick, I mean Manning) may someday soon dance just out of grasp to turn a lack of contain into a deep completion with advancement on the line, or scramble for a clinching first down on third and long.
Sometimes, the Panthers offensive line, even with their third-string center, backups in both spots on the left side and right guard Trai Turner playing right tackle, looked better than advertised, giving Newton ample time to survey the field and achieve limited gains. Newton also protected himself with a number of quick throws, for a few soft completions but also a lot of deliberately errant balls away from coverage. Other times, Newton himself turned WWI doughboy and zig-zagged his way out of rifle range, like on this third-quarter trot when he turned a likely loss into a first down. And then Newton’s linemates erased more than one hypothetical flattening with egregious holds, as highlighted in the last clip above.
Clark got his chance to challenge Newton’s preservation instincts, leading to this extended discourse after yet another disrupted dump-off attempt to Kelvin Benjamin. But Clark did follow up on his Twitter feelings by haunting Newton all over the yard:
Look at the speed on Clark’s spin move off the line to step immediately inside of Turner, flush Newton out and bend outward himself to force the play out of bounds. Then in the next clip he decisively reads the double-team outside and turns it into a stunt inside. And finally, see the power with which Clark splits another double-team between Greg Olsen and Jonathan Stewart like Clark is some kind of demonic Kool-Aid man smashing through the wall. With Bennett still easing his way back into action—he played 38 out of 52 snaps (68 percent) after averaging 85 percent of the team’s snaps before his injury—it’s good to see Clark not stepping back at all from the mantle as the group’s enforcer.
Taken all together, this tape illustrates the peril of using sacks exclusively as a baseline for pass rush performance. It’s like trying to judge a person only by the gifts they give you or the parties they throw, instead of how their patience or reliability shapes your daylights on the regular. Beside, the only really missed opportunity with Newton in the grasp came on this hamster-wheel climb of a power rush by Ahtyba Rubin, and you can’t get mad at Rubin—especially when it generates such a warped, dolphin-flop pass from a falling-backward Newton: