TAMPA, Fla. – Cam Newton took off on second-and-long and Mason Foster gave chase, holding one huge quarterback in his sights and one thought in his mind: "Wrap and roll." That was just one of the mantras new Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano drove into the Bucs during tackling circuits the defense did every single practice in preparation for Sunday's season opener.
As the linebacker got closer, other thoughts entered his mind: Wait for the cutback … Press his hip … Don't bite on the ball … Grab a body part. Foster did everything right, wrapped up the legs of the Panthers quarterback and rolled him to the ground as soon as he tried to cut back.
Then suddenly Newton was bolt upright, staring right into Foster's eyes and screaming.
"Get off me!" is the G-rated version of what Newton yelled into the defender's facemask.
"Not today!" is the G-rated version of what Foster yelled back.
And that moment, with less than two minutes to go in the first half, is when Foster knew he had gotten to Newton.
"Anytime you see a guy get up and go at you like that," Foster said after the Bucs' season-opening 16-10 win, "You know you got under his skin."
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The Bucs got under Cam Newton's skin all day Sunday, holding him to one touchdown pass and, more important, only four yards total rushing. Those four yards were actually the length of the run Foster stopped on that key play.
Not today, indeed.
Newton, last season's Rookie of the Year in a runaway, had more than 300 yards passing, but it's the running that gets him in rhythm and it's the running the Bucs were intent on stopping.
That they did, to stunning effect, as a man who torched the Bucs for eight touchdowns (four of them on the ground) in two games last season could lead his team to only 10 net yards rushing and one rushing first down. Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who went wide-eyed when talking about the Bucs' defense, summed it up in two words when he called his star quarterback's performance "Unlike Cam."
How unlike Cam? When asked how the Bucs slowed Newton down, the normally verbose receiver Steve Smith said, "I'm not really sure exactly."
Well, it started and ended with those tireless tackling circuit runs by Schiano (and defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan), who was coaching his first pro team in Sunday's game. Some drills were done regardless of the opponent. Others were tailored to Newton. Call it fundamental football, but raise your hand if you thought the back-to-school approach the former Rutgers head coach took with the Bucs would alienate a bunch of professionals. Apparently not, as the home team put on a smash-mouth show all afternoon.
"They brought the intensity," Smith said. "We were kinda stagnant. They were the rabbit and we were the tortoise."
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It's Newton who's usually the rabbit. He busts open the entire field when he runs effectively. It's hard to take him down with just one tackler, despite Foster's show of force, so any cheating or hesitation in the defensive backfield frees up Newton to chuck it deep. That didn't happen Sunday as Newton looked uncertain when he scanned the field. The Bucs rarely forced him out of the pocket, which at first looked like a death wish but at the end looked like genius.
"They got us into third-and-long," said Panthers receiver Brandon LaFell. "We wanted to stay third-and-under-8. We weren't able to get into rhythm."
That's an understatement. The key sacks Newton took were from holding the ball too long and starting to run only at the last possible second. The Bucs, trained and retrained in the art of tackling, didn't miss. How effective were they? The Bucs had three sacks for 12 yards. The three leading rushers for the Panthers, Kealoha Pilares, Mike Tolbert and Newton, had 11 yards rushing combined. DeAngelo Williams had -1.
Asked if the game plan was to stop Newton from running, Foster said, "It was to stop the run, period.
"He gets himself going by running the ball," Foster said. "It was frustrating for him."
Much was made of Newton's pouting last season, and he vowed to show more maturity in his sophomore year. Rivera said he was "solid" in his demeanor Sunday, and he nearly pulled out a win with a late drive, but Newton was the picture of frustration after the game.
It took him what seemed like hours to get dressed, as he first put a white towel over his head and then covered his face with his left hand as he sat in his locker. Minutes went by, and there wasn't a teammate within 10 feet of him in the crowded Panthers locker room. Newton didn't say anything, or look at anyone as he gradually put his clothes on. Then he wandered across the room and wandered back to put on his sport coat.
Finally he strolled out to the podium, shuffle step by step, the exact opposite of a strut. He climbed up a stair, positioned himself behind the microphone, and tapped his finger loudly on the wood frame of the stanchion as he waited for the first question.
Then he shut his eyes tight and took a deep breath.
Asked how frustrating the loss was, he said, "I don't know what you want me to say."
Then he thought back to the two interceptions. Only one was his fault, but it was easy to tell he was staring those passes down in his mind.
"I wish I could have those two throws back," Newton said, his voice in a very slight whine. "I can't." He was forcing himself not to be upset, but it was too much like how he forced everything on Sunday.
Then, Newton stepped down to the cement walkway, put on his headphones, grabbed the handle on his suitcase, and started down the long hallway toward the team bus. His head was tilted to the right and downward, as if his neck hurt.
Down at the other end of the hallway, there were voices and laughter and hugs. Schiano was speaking with his former Rutgers player, paralyzed defender Eric LeGrand. The two joked and nodded like old friends, which now they are.
But Newton walked alone, step by slow step.
For one day, the Bucs had wrapped and rolled until the rabbit turned into a tortoise.
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