There are plenty of teams in the league that have one main receiver whom if you shut down, they begin having difficulties in the passing game. The Panthers are one of those teams.
In 2011, the connection of Cam Newton to wide receiver Steve Smith was one of the most prolific and explosive in the NFL. Not only was Smith Newton’s go-to receiver, but he was also the big-play receiver in Carolina’s offense. 79 catches for nearly 1,400 yards and 7 touchdowns really highlights all he did. He was targeted very often, and when he caught the ball he was very productive.
Now, he’s still been relatively productive this season. He’s caught a bunch of long passes so far this season. He has a high yards-per-catch average still, and obviously moves the chains well. But there are two keys: 1) he hasn’t caught a touchdown yet and 2) he only has 14 receptions on the season so far. Limiting his touches is imperative to slowing down the Panthers offense.
Obviously keeping it out of his hands is important. But it’s doubly important because Newton isn’t even close to having the same type of connection with his other receivers the way he does with Smith. TE Greg Olsen is a good player, and as a tight end is going to get a lot of targets. But the rest of the crew isn’t particularly outstanding.
Here’s my proposition: don’t let Steve Smith beat you. Double cover him. Play the run. Single cover the other receivers and make them beat you. If you decide to run zone defense, fine. Just make sure that you have a short zone and a deep zone surrounding Smith so that Newton has to look to his other reads, and the pass-rush has more time to get to the quarterback.
The Panthers have a very deep backfield with DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert, Jonathan Stewart, and you can really consider Newton another running back. But there are really only two real, proven receiving threats, and those are Smith and Olsen. If the front plays disciplined against the read-option Newton will likely run, the Falcons can do a multitude of things to prevent the pass. But the first thing they must do is stop the deep ball to Steve Smith.