Eric Weddle’s eyes glittered with amusement as he contemplated the best metaphor to illustrate the unique problems posed by Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
“The obvious reason — he’s a dinosaur,” the Ravens safety said.
What kind of dinosaur?
“A fast dinosaur — muscular and big, runs people over,” Weddle continued. “I would think like a … what’s the one with the horns? … I was going to say a rhinoceros, but it’s not the right thing. Triceratops — that one! Yes. That one just bowls people over. I would think that one.”
It might not take the 65 million years to find the next Newton. But he does present one of the most unusual challenges in the modern NFL.
There’s simply no other quarterback who’s built like a defensive end, runs like a fullback and completes 65 percent of his passes. He even blocks.
That’s why Newton won an MVP award after the 2015 season and why he’s led the Panthers to a 4-2 record as they prepare to host the Ravens on Sunday. He was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week on Wednesday after he led the Panthers to a comeback victory over the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.
Newton was limited in practice Wednesday because of a right shoulder injury, but the Ravens fully expect to deal with him this weekend.
“He’s a very unique quarterback in this league — only one really like him,” Weddle said. “You can face big quarterbacks, like ‘Big Ben’ [Roethlisberger], who’s really tough to bring down when you try to wrap him up. But Cam, he’s just an amazing, amazing player and extremely difficult in the open field and with what he presents running the ball. Obviously, he can throw, too.”
So how will the Ravens confront this mutant strain of quarterback?
Against most fleet-footed quarterbacks, they seek to hold the edges and force the offense to operate in a relatively tight box. Two weeks ago, they executed the strategy perfectly against the Tennessee Titans’ Marcus Mariota and came away with a franchise-record 11 sacks.
But that approach is hardly guaranteed to succeed against Newton, because he’s such a large, effective inside runner. Many of his off-tackle runs are designed rather than improvised.
“They do a great job of getting him out there as a runner,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He runs the ball — he’ll slide occasionally — but most of the time he’s low on his shoulder and trying to get first downs, even blocking.”
Newton is listed at 6 feet 5 and 245 pounds, bigger than anyone in the Ravens secondary and many of the team’s linebackers.
“His size is a huge factor, just because he can lean forward in short situations, whether it’s third-and-1 or second-and-2,” Ravens safety Tony Jefferson said.
In one illustration of his short-yardage prowess, Newton set the all-time record for most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in the first game of his sixth season. With 57, he’s now 14 clear of the former leader, Steve Young.
He averages 4.9 yards on about nine carries a game, roughly in line with his career efficiency. Between him and run-catch threat Christian McCaffrey coming out of the backfield, the Panthers have one of the most productive rushing attacks in the league.
Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley noted the Panthers run distracting motions and shifts to pull defensive playmakers away from Newton’s designed runs. He said discipline is the key to countering them.
“If one guy gets in the wrong spot, they can break off a big play,” Mosley said. “So we’ve just got to make sure we stay square and use great technique when he’s running with the ball.”
Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale offered no magical solution when asked how his team must account for Newton.
“He has the ball in his hands every play, and we have to pay attention to everything,” Martindale said Thursday.
Martindale heard Weddle’s triceratops comparison the day before but came up with his own metaphor to capture the Newton dilemma.
“For all of us who’ve played sports, remember when you were like in fifth and sixth grade and [you played] the guy that had the beard and drove to the game?” he said. “That’s what he’s like as an NFL player.”
Martindale joked with his wife that Halloween had arrived early with the horrors presented by Newton’s game tape.
So on the tally of weekly descriptors, add triceratops, middle-school bully and movie monster to the quarterback’s usual “Superman” persona.
Carolina head coach Ron Rivera, who has worked with Newton for his entire eight-year career, placed him in a rarefied lineage of running quarterbacks begun by Randall Cunningham and continued by Michael Vick.
“I’m not sure if I’d call him a ‘power runner’ just as much as a ‘runner,’ ” Rivera said. “It’s one of those things you have to play very disciplined.”
In his lesser seasons, Newton has struggled with accuracy and high interception rates. But he’s played more efficiently under the Panthers’ new offensive coordinator, Norv Turner, who had instant credibility with Newton because of his past work with quarterbacks such as Troy Aikman and Philip Rivers.
Turner affectionately refers to Newton as “Baby” and the quarterback parrots the phrase back in lighthearted impersonations of the 66-year-old offensive coordinator. Beyond their cheerful chemistry, the payoffs from Turner’s gospel of quick releases and timing patterns have been real.
Newton’s quarterback rating of 94.7 would be the second best of his career if maintained over a full season, behind only his 2015 MVP season. And his QBR of 62.3 would be the third best of his career.
“I think it’s been great for Cam,” Rivera said.
Pair those passing numbers with his presence as a runner, and the Ravens have a dinosaur-sized problem on their hands.