Saints take on budding star Newton, new-look Panthers in NFC South tilt

Just a week after facing one of the highly touted quarterbacks of the 2011 rookie class, the New Orleans Saints on Sunday will be introduced to another one who’s playing at a different level so far in his budding career.

After harassing rookie Blaine Gabbert and holding him to four completions in 18 pass attempts and 31 yards in the second half of a 23-10 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars last week, Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers await on Sunday.

Newton, the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner and the first overall pick in the draft this spring, has taken the league by storm in just four games. He and a vastly improved Panthers offense will be the challenge for the Saints when they meet at noon in Bank of America Stadium.

The 6-foot-5, 248-pound Newton already has two 400-yard passing games and 1,519 total yards (1,386 passing and 133 rushing), while accounting for nine touchdowns (five passing, four rushing).

While the team’s record doesn’t match Newton’s production for the Panthers (1-3), the Saints (3-1) know what they’re going up against in the middle game of a three-week road trip.

Saints strong safety Roman Harper knows with the addition of the versatile Newton, the Panthers are a completely different offensive team than they’ve faced in the past.

“There’s no doubt about that. They spread it out a lot more,” said Harper, the Saints’ leader in total tackles (32) and sacks (3?). “They utilize all of their weapons, and they have a lot more weapons to go to besides (wide receiver) Steve Smith out on the edge.”

Harper said the Panthers, who rank third in total offense with 440.0 yards per game, have gotten help from former LSU wide receiver Brandon LaFell and tight ends Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen, who were acquired this offseason from the Saints and Chicago Bears, respectively.

Former 1,000-yard running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are still around and Smith, who’s had some monster games against the Saints, is averaging 22.1 yards per catch on 24 receptions.

But it all revolves around Newton, who is a threat to run and throw and reminds some of former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham, a 6-4, 215-pounder whose career numbers included 29,979 passing yards and 4,928 rushing yards and 6.4 yards per carry.

“I don’t really remember Randall Cunningham a lot when he was in his prime, but (Saints linebackers coach) Joe Vitt made that comment and he’s been around a while,” Saints linebacker Scott Shanle said. “The expectations for (Newton) were kind of off the charts to begin with being the first overall pick, and you see the ability on the film.

“His ability to put some touch on the long ball is pretty impressive,” he said. “One thing people may have expected him to do a little more of is take off and run and show his athletic ability like he did in college, but he really hasn’t been looking to do that. There’s no need for him to really take off and use his legs when he’s been throwing the ball as well as he has.”

“He’s been throwing the ball extremely well and making a lot of big plays down the field,” Harper said of Newton, who’s hit on 59.5 percent of his passes in going 97 of 163. “We’re going to have our hands full.”

While the Panthers have only one win so far, Saints coach Sean Payton said it’s more important to look at the team, which is a lot different on both sides of the ball under first-year coach Ron Rivera, than the record.

“We look at what they’re doing well,” Payton said. “They’re completely different than they have been in regards to what they’re doing offensively, and they’re different defensively. But clearly, they’re very explosive offensively and they put up real big numbers.

“Certainly our players understand that every team we play is dangerous. They’re playing well. They haven’t had the wins, but they’re putting up some real impressive numbers.”

When Payton looks at the numbers, he sees a lot of production — both passing and running—from Newton.

“He has a very gifted arm. He can escape, and when he does escape he looks to throw and not just run,” he said. “When he does run, he is extremely athletic and is someone that can pick up more than just five or six yards, it can be 15 to 20 yards. There are a lot of challenges that he presents.

“In a short period of time, they’ve put together a plan that really fits his strengths.”

The good news for the Saints is they’ve improved defensively since giving up nearly 400 total yards and 42 points in a season-opening loss to the Green Bay Packers. In the three games since, all wins, they’ve allowed 56 points.

In the win over the Jaguars, they allowed 274 total yards — giving up just 105 yards in pitching a shutout in the second half.

Newton certainly noticed on the tapes.

“I think the more games they play, they keep getting better and better,” he said. “I think this was the best game they’ve played this past week. Those guys were flying all over the place distracting the quarterback.”