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The Packers' defense represented a significant step up in class for Newton. Their behemoth front can nullify a running game and pressure a passer without blitzing. Linebacker Clay Matthews is one of the most creative edge rushers in the game. And coordinator Dom Capers has been disguising defenses and using zone blitzes in the NFL for 26 years with eight teams. "Well, of course, with a rookie quarterback," said Capers, in an old Texas drawl, last Friday, "you try to show him some things he hasn't seen."
Newton at first played like Brady. His initial throw was a 23-yard deep corner to tight end Jeremy Shockey, and he hit six of his first seven passes —"They scripted the start, and it was obvious they were ready," said Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji—en route to a 7--0 Carolina lead that eventually became 13--0 early in the second quarter.
But, predictably, it wouldn't remain so easy. After starting out 10 for 12 for 151 yards, Newton completed just 4 of his next 13 throws, with two interceptions to Charles Woodson, who entered Sunday having played 183 more NFL games than Newton and having intercepted 47 passes.
His 48th came when he lined up as a Cover Two corner over Smith with 3:11 left in the first half. Woodson bumped Smith, then let him go, as if passing him to the safety over the top, standard Cover Two technique. "But then I sank [dropped] back," Woodson said. Newton's pass sailed over tight end Greg Olsen, who was crossing underneath, and into Woodson's arms.
"On that one," said Smith, "I don't know who he was throwing it to. But it was too short for me and too long for Olsen."
Asked what he thought Newton might have seen, Woodson smirked and said "I have no clue."
On the Panthers' second snap of the third quarter, a critical series with Green Bay having just taken a 14--13 lead, Newton tried to escape the pocket, but Matthews, who had earlier been juked in the open field by him, held the edge and pushed right tackle Jeff Otah back toward Newton. Thrown off his rhythm—"Everything in the passing game is rhythm and timing," Weinke recalled stressing in their spring and summer meetings—Newton locked his eyes on Smith who was running a shallow cross with Woodson shadowing him, and then threw, late and off his back foot. Two mistakes and a predictable result.
"I read Steve running across the field," Woodson said. "Then I looked at [Newton] and saw that he was getting ready to throw it, so I just undercut Steve." A ball out in front of Smith might have been catchable, but Newton's pass was slightly behind, an easy pick number 49 for Woodson.
"I thought for the most part [Newton] played pretty well," said Woodson. "He'll get better with experience."
After Smith's fumble, Newton served up another pick with 5:22 left in the third quarter, overthrowing Legedu Naanee on a deep curl and finding safety Morgan Burnett. Rodgers turned that one into a field goal and a 10-point lead. Newton subsequently drove the Panthers inside the Packers' five-yard line but missed on consecutive throws to Naanee, and Carolina had to settle for three. Another foray inside the 10 was halted when Newton was sacked at the six on third down and then, scrambling, was brought down by Matthews at the three on fourth down. Two plays later Rodgers tossed an 84-yard touchdown to Jordy Nelson to finish off the Panthers.