Film Review: Cam Newton is Still the Bridge the Pats Need, But Must Improve in Scoring Zone

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The Patriots’ offense led by quarterback Cam Newton isn’t struggling to move the ball this season, including in Sunday’s loss to the Dolphins. 

Newton and the Patriots were officially eliminated from playoff contention when New England had five drives stall inside the Miami 30-yard line.

Stalling inside the scoring zone is familiar territory for these Patriots, who rank tenth in yards per drive this season (yes, top ten) but are 29th in red-zone scoring efficiency. 

In evaluating the quarterback position for 2021 and beyond, executing those key scoring situations has been a bigger problem for Newton than anything else this season. 

Newton, who will have a year under his belt in the offense and likely come cheap once again, is probably the best value play for the Patriots to start the 2021 season. 

As much as some Patriots fans are done with Newton, re-signing him on another low-cost contract while looking to the draft for the future remains New England’s most likely path. 

Nobody is saying Newton needs to remain the starter or start the entire 2021 season, but he’s the bridge the Patriots need right now. What are you going to do? Trade for Carson Wentz (and his $25.4M cap hit in 2021)? Sign Tyrod Taylor or Ryan Fitzpatrick? Why? 

On top of the fact that those quarterbacks will go through Newton’s same growing pains with the Patriots playbook, they’re marginal upgrades that’ll probably come at a higher cost. 

And some of the issues for the Pats quarterback are certainly on the personnel around him. 

Unless Belichick is willing to pay the price for a Matthew Stafford-type, the play for the Pats is to retain Newton in the hopes he improves while finding a better exit strategy than Jarrett Stidham. 

Still, to see significant improvement in terms of wins and losses next season, Newton needs to sharpen his execution both mentally and with his ball placement in the scoring zone.

Newton’s offense is moving the football between the 20s even with all his perceived struggles with accuracy, timing, and trust in the system and a mediocre group of pass-catchers. 

But those issues are directly impacting the Patriots’ ability to punch the ball into the end zone is too often, making it difficult to tag Newton as a long-term option for this team moving forward. 

3RD & 3 AT MIA 27 (2ND, 8:59) C. Newton pass incomplete deep left to N. Harry 

There’s no fancy breakdown needed here with Newton going to Harry the whole way at the bottom of the screen. The Pats wideout wins on a back-shoulder route, separating at the break point with a sudden move that creates a passing window. Unfortunately, Newton’s pass is on Harry’s upfield shoulder rather than his back-shoulder, forcing the 2019 first-round pick to adjust and attempt a one-handed catch. Pro Football Focus gave Harry a drop, but I disagree with that assessment. That’s an easy completion made difficult by an off-target throw, and the Patriots are forced to kick their first field goal. 

2ND & 8 AT MIA 21 (2ND, 4:42) C. Newton pass incomplete deep left to J. Meyers 

In this audio breakdown, the Patriots clear-out the coverage for Jakobi Meyers to work on Dolphins slot corner Nik Needham. Keene’s crosser holds the deep safety, Harry takes the outside corner into the flat, and Meyers wins on his corner route to present Newton with a chance at six. Although it’s not the cleanest of pockets, there’s plenty of green grass for Cam to drop this throw in the bucket to Meyers. Instead, the ball gives Meyers no chance as it sails well out of bounds. Need a better throw there from the quarterback. 

3RD & 8 AT MIA 21 (2ND, 4:36) C. Newton scrambles right end for three yards FUMBLES

On the following play of the drive, Newton passes up an open Jakobi Meyers on an anticipation stick route to his left. Once he moves on, his only option is to take off running and he fumbles. If Newton trusts what he’s seeing here, then he likely hits Meyers as the Pats wideout is coming out of his break. An accurate and well-timed pass gives Meyers a chance to turn upfield to move the chains. These types of timing throws have plagued Newton all season.

3RD & 5 AT MIA 24 (4TH, 9:13) C. Newton pass incomplete deep left to D. Keene 

Here’s another audio breakdown on a play that’s a microcosm of Newton’s season. With zone defenders in the middle of the field, Cam decides to go to his rookie tight end in a one-on-one matchup with DB Eric Rowe. On the one hand, Keene is not Travis Kelce, which speaks to Newton’s limited options in these situations. But on the other hand, Keene is never winning on his route, and Newton has time in the pocket to move on to option two. Without knowing his progression, we can’t assume that N’Keal Harry would’ve been Cam’s next look, but if he was, Harry wins on his post route for a potential big play. McDaniels moved Harry into the inside slot against Needham for a reason (to get him away from Xavien Howard and Byron Jones), that’s where the play is meant to go, but it doesn’t.

4TH & 3 AT MIA 23 (4TH, 1:16) C. Newton sacked at MIA 32 for -9 yards

In our final audio breakdown, the Dolphins use a “banjo” call to defend Keene and Meyers (in motion). With the two corners playing inside-out, the Pats use a switch release to confuse the coverage rules and get Meyers open on the slant. However, Newton holds the ball in the pocket and takes a sack despite staring down a wide-open Meyers. 

The four plays above speak volumes about the margin for error with New England’s offense and Newton’s struggles to make both high-level throws and even the easy passes.

If those four plays go differently, the Patriots are looking at a couple of touchdowns and field goals rather than only 12 points. Maybe they still lose, but those are much better results. 

To justify keeping Newton around, he has to step up his game in those critical situations. 

RUN DEFENSE WOES HIGHLIGHT SECOND OFFSEASON PRIORITY

On the other side of the ball, Bill Belichick has as much work to do on his run defense and front-seven personnel as he does on offense.

The Patriots allowed 436 rushing yards to the Dolphins and Rams, but the dam didn’t start breaking in just the last two games; these are season-long issues for this group. 

New England’s defense is 28th in rush DVOA and success rate, 27th in expected points added per rush, and 29th in EPA per play on first and second down. Plus, they’re dead-last, 32nd, in EPA success rate on off-tackle runs. All of that is a big pile of yuck. 

Granted, Dont’a Hightower’s opt-out after the free-agent departures played a significant role in the Patriots’ deficiencies in the front seven. Still, they need help at edge defender, D-Line, and off-ball linebacker.

At the top of the list is edge defender, where Chase Winovich isn’t developing into a sturdy enough early-down option, John Simon is aging fast, Uche is too undersized, and the rest are just bodies (Calhoun, Bower). The Pats haven’t been able to set the edge all season.

In defense of the players, the Patriots’ coaches are getting out-schemed by the opponent, especially over the last two weeks, and aren’t putting guys in positions to succeed. 

Here are four excruciating attempts at run defense that sum up the Patriots’ issues there. 

3RD & 1 AT NE 20 (1ST, 2:10) S. Ahmed up the middle for ten yards 

This third-down run has to be one of the most perplexing plays of the season for the Pats. It’s third-and-1, and New England decides to go with a six-man box with only two down defensive linemen who are two-gapping. They don’t even have a DT in the strong side A-Gap to start. What? Both Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler get bullied at the point of attack by double-teams. Then, Terez Hall is scrape exchanging on the zone-read with Simon. You cannot give up the A-Gap on third and short that easily, especially from that field position with a chance to force a field goal. 

2ND & 1 AT NE 29 (3RD, 12:26) M. Breida left end for 14 yards 

In this audio breakdown, the Patriots get aggressive with a T/E stunt and run blitz by Terez Hall to get some penetration in the backfield. However, safety Devin McCourty doesn’t replace Shilique Calhoun as the force player on the edge of the defense, and Breida bounces the run outside for a big gain. Although it wasn’t as bad from a coaching perspective as the play before, the aggressive approach burned them, and the execution was way worse than the play call. 

2ND & 10 AT MIA 22 (3RD, 3:21) S. Ahmed right end for 31 yards

As we mentioned earlier, New England is dead-last in EPA success rate while allowing 5.3 yards per rush on off-tackle runs. Above, Miami runs a split-zone bluff scheme where the tight end comes across the formation like its split-zone, but the running back keeps front side. The Dolphins, as the Rams did in a similar scheme last week, use a crack block to help get the edge, but the dam breaks because Chase Winovich gives a lackluster effort setting the edge against the right tackle. With nobody outside of Wino, his inability to hold up at the point of attack costs them 31 yards. 

We all love Wino as a pass-rusher, and he’s a fun player. However, plays like that give you pause about his long-term fit in a defense that needs sturdy edge-setters at the end of the line. 

3RD & 8 AT NE 34 (3RD, 0:44) P. Laird right guard for 12 yards 

In his Monday morning press conference, Dolphins head coach Brian Flores said Laird’s third-down conversion on a game-planned power play from the gun was his favorite run of the afternoon. Dolphins offensive coordinator Chan Gailey knew the Pats would play seven or even eight defensive backs on third and long, so he forced those DBs to stop the run here. Deatrich Wise gets mauled by the double-team, the pulling guard gets up to Dugger, and 180-pound safety Myles Bryant is forced to scream downhill to try to fill from 12 yards off the ball. 

The Patriots defense is playing opposing offenses to stop the pass, which makes sense in 2020, but it’s also putting a ton of pressure on the front seven to stop the run. 

Ideally, New England’s front, like the Rams’ last week, would have individual players in their front seven that routinely beat double-teams and get off blocks to make that strategy work. 

Los Angeles plays light in the box and sometimes with only two D-linemen with their hands in the dirt, but they also have Aaron Donald, and the Patriots do not. 

There are obviously some keepers on that defensive line, such as Lawrence Guy, who had a tough game on Sunday but is typically a very stout run defender in the middle of the defense. 

But Guy needs more help, and if they’re going to fit the run with defensive backs at the second-level and lighter defensive lines, the Patriots need significantly better personnel.