The Pittsburgh Steelers knew that facing Cam Newton would be a problem. Mobile quarterbacks have been able to take advantage of leaky rush lane integrity in recent years, as we saw Tyrod Taylor take advantage of in the season opener. The Carolina Panthers quarterback is the best rusher at the position in the league.
The defense held him to 10 yards on the ground on two rushes. How? They didn’t give him time to run. Newton spent so much time under pressure in the backfield that his opportunities to flee the pocket (he did notably pass up one scrambling opportunity to throw a pass for a first down instead) were few.
It was all part of their strategy heading into the game, according to cornerback Mike Hilton. “The plan was to hit him”, he told Mike Prisuta. “He’s a big guy so you have to try to get as many hits on him as possible”.
He added, “we could tell throughout the game those hits were taking a toll on him. It really just slowed down the offense”.
In an effort to both prevent him from running and discouraging the thought, the Steelers stuck much more often with their ‘base’ 3-4 defensive front than they normally have over the past four seasons, which Hilton noted was especially evident “when they went three wides”.
Despite the fact that they were playing an interconference opponent on a short week, the coaching staff would seem to have done their due diligence in studying the Panthers’ offensive tape and learning what they like to do and what they could do to limit their most effective strategies. They even used one—a wide receiver reverse—against them in their own offense.
Hilton credited the coverage abilities of their starting inside linebackers, Vince Williams and Jon Bostic, for their ability to remain in their ‘base’ package as much as they did, believing that they could limit Christian McCaffrey as a wide receiver—though he did have two receiving touchdowns of 20 and 30 yards, so there is that.
But the ultimate objective was simple: pound Newton whenever you can. To that end, they registered five sacks and several other additional hits, including one on their one-play second drive that resulted in a Williams interception returned for a touchdown.
Though Newton did complete a high percentage of his passes and threw those two touchdowns with a quarterback rating of over 100, he never looked entirely comfortable running the offense as he had most of the season.
He hadn’t been under the sort of pressure that the Steelers put him under, either. He was only sacked 12 times in the first eight games, and never more than twice since the season opener in any one game. Not that goal in every game isn’t to hit the quarterback as much as possible, but they had a specific strategy for defending Newton, they implemented it, and they achieved great results.