Film Review: Patriots Use More Vertical Passing Concepts, RPOs With Cam Newton

We are learning new things about the Patriots offense with quarterback Cam Newton every week. 

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We are learning new things about the Patriots offense with quarterback Cam Newton every week. 

In the season-opener, the Pats registered the league’s highest expected points added per rush en route to 217 yards on the ground and a 21-11 victory over the Miami Dolphins. 

The following week we saw an entirely different game script, forcing offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to call 47 passing plays in what was nearly a fourth-quarter comeback in Seattle. 

New England’s pass-heavy script in the loss to the Seahawks produced the fifth-highest EPA per drop-back in Week 2, and even the passing game had Newton adaptations.

On his 44 pass attempts, Newton averaged 6.2 air yards per attempt, a dramatic increase from the 3.5 figure in the opener, and the highest average for the Pats in a game since late 2017. 

This was not death by a thousand paper cuts or the precision passing attack we saw with Brady. There were elements of that, and it’s the same foundation, but the Patriots sent receivers vertically up the field looking for explosive plays all night from their big-armed quarterback.

Some of the route combinations were by design to attack Seattle’s zones. Still, the Pats are evolving to Newton by transitioning to a vertical passing game as he gets more comfortable. 

For the first time in a long time, we saw New England stretching the field on the perimeter and attacking deep with Newton going 15-of-20 for 295 yards on intermediate and deep throws (4-of-4).

Newton currently ranks fourth on intermediate throws (92.1) and second in deep throws (97.6) in Pro Football Focus grading while completing 70.7 of his passes from the pocket through two weeks. His average yards per attempt from the pocket is 8.7, and he has three “big-time” throws.

Along with adding vertical concepts that allow Newton to show off his terrific arm strength, McDaniels has called 13 run-pass options in the first two weeks of the 2020 season. 

“Most of what we do is some variation of what we’ve been familiar with,” McDaniels told CLNS Media on Tuesday. “Every time you add a different player with a unique skill set I think it’s your responsibility as a coach and coordinator to investigate any and all avenues you can use to make your team successful. I’m not going to say there’s nothing new, that’s not true. There’s things that are definitely new for all of us, but a big portion of what we are doing is something we’ve done in the past.”

The drastic differences between Newton and former quarterback Tom Brady are opening things up for the Patriots offense, at least against Seattle, who was banged up defensively. 

Seattle’s defense is no longer the Legion of Boom. But the film shows open receivers running free all over the place, receivers that supposedly stink.

Credit also goes to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who was in his bag, putting Seattle’s zone defenders in conflict and calling different concepts that stress what they do defensively. 

Although New England came up a yard short, their perceived weaknesses on offense, Newton’s downfield accuracy, and a lack of weapons proved to be plenty in the loss to the Seahawks. 

Below, we’ll break down several of New England’s passing plays from Sunday night to highlight these shifts in the scheme and where Newton himself has improved as a passer:  

NEWTON’S THROWING MECHANICS

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was effusive in his praise of Newton’s improved throwing mechanics due to hard work by the quarterback, QB coach Jedd Fisch, and McDaniels. 

“Cam’s worked really hard on his throwing mechanics and we’ve seen significant improvement during that time,” Belichick told reporters on Monday. “He’s definitely made some modifications in his mechanics and his delivery. The results have been positive, and I’d say significantly better on those certain types of plays that those adjustments need to be made on.”

There are several factors at play regarding Newton’s improved mechanics, which, as Belichick said, are noticeably improving his downfield ball placement and timing. 

Following the Newton signing in July, my audio breakdown of Cam’s struggles as a thrower pointed to issues with him “breaking the chain” and “arm throwing” with uneven shoulders. 

Breaking the chain is a phrase that quarterback coaches use to describe throwers that don’t generate velocity from their lower-half, relying too much on their arm to push the ball downfield. Newton’s feet and hips were not in-sync with his throwing motion, which “broke the chain” and canceled most of the power he was getting from the shoulders down. 

Newton would overthrow quite often, which was also indicative of an unorthodox backward tilt that he’d get in his windup where his front shoulder would fly up, causing the ball to sail. 

Here’s a great example of a dart by Newton that highlights the improvements he is making working with the Pats coaching staff. As he gets into his throwing motion, his feet are well-balanced and perfectly in-sync with the play’s timing. As he steps into the throw and brings the ball to his ear, he begins to open his hips, continuing the chain of energy from the ground up. Then, he keeps his shoulders level and torques his hips open so he’s fully square to the target as the ball flies out of his hand. The result is an accurate bullet to tight end Ryan Izzo for a first down.

Part of Newton’s improved throwing mechanics has to do with better trust in his protection and a healthy lead foot that was surgically repaired in 2019 following a Lisfranc injury. 

However, there’s a noticeable difference in his throwing mechanics that are a testament to the coaching he’s getting in New England as well as his hard work to make himself better at age 31. 

The Patriots are reaping the benefits of a more accurate Newton, who has better control of the ball overall and is currently above league-average in completion percentage over expectation.

VERTICAL PASSING CONCEPTS

The Patriots are a game-plan offense that morphs every week to their opponent, and the Seahawks zone coverages were begging the Pats to throw the ball deep. 

There’s always a chance that McDaniels will scrap the vertical concepts next week in favor of horizontally stretching the Raiders defense if that’s the best way to do things. 

But something tells me that the deep shots are here to stay because of Newton’s big arm. 

THREE VERTICALS

Let’s start with Julian Edelman’s longest catch in a game since the 2016 season, a 49-yard dart from Newton. On the play, the Patriots release three receivers upfield on vertical double-moves to stress Seattle’s cover-four structure. On the backside, Damiere Byrd, who set up his double moves late in the game by running out routes all game, draws two deep defenders in coverage. Newton also influences the deep safety closest to Byrd to shade over to the speedy wideout by initially staring down the right side. Edelman has a one-on-one matchup in the middle of the field with safety Jamal Adams due to Newton’s eye manipulation. Edelman gives Adams a stutter-and-go move and blows by him over the top. Newton makes a great throw moving to his left to elude the rush and flicks the wrist to drop it in the bucket.

When was the last time we saw New England run three vertical double moves on the same play with great route spacing like that? Been awhile. 

The Patriots went back to the three-verticals well again later on for another shot to Edelman. 

This time, the Seahawks are in a cover-three match coverage, with Adams matching Edelman’s vertical route from the slot. Seattle busts the coverage here a little with the post-safety vacating the middle of the field to shade over towards Byrd. Edelman goes right up the shoot with inside positioning on Adams to set the Patriots up on the one-yard line with no inside help. Newton would eventually punch it in with a touchdown pass to fullback Jakob Johnson. 

DEEP OVER ROUTES

New England is no strangers to over routes, or intermediate crossing patterns, as they’ve become Julian Edelman’s go-to route over the last few seasons. 

In fact, Edelman leads the entire NFL in both receptions and yards on over routes since 2019. 

Edelman made a great adjustment on Sunday night coming across the field that converted a standard intermediate over route to a more explosive play for the Patriots. 

The Patriots run play-action from under center with Edelman on the crosser and catch Seattle in their cover-three “mable” coverage. In mable coverage, the corner at the bottom of the screen, who has Harry, is locked into man coverage, while the rest of the defense plays zone. With no defender in the deep third, that leaves Jamal Adams as the hook/over defender responsible for cutting off Edelman. Edelman knows that Adams will cut him off, so he runs his route further upfield to stress the fact that there’s nobody deep on that side. In the pocket, Newton makes another mechanically sound throw to drop it in the bucket to Edelman. 

The Pats will continue to run crossing patterns at all three levels of the defense, and on Sunday night, those were shot plays. 

STOP ROUTES 

Another route in the Patriots’ playbook with Brady that now figures to be a featured aspect of Newton’s offense are stop routes along the sideline. 

New England attacked Seattle’s off-coverages with Newton’s arm strength by running stop routes with speedster Damiere Byrd.

Byrd has a few options on his vertical releases based on the cornerback’s technique. He can continue on a fade (against press), break inside (against outside leverage), or outside (against inside leverage) depending on the technique.

Here, Byrd runs a “divot” route along the sideline (h/t @BradKelly17). With the defender in off-man and inside leverage, that tells Byrd to stop his route down and break towards the sideline. He closes down the space between himself and the defender in his stem and then stops down in two steps to make it an easy throw for Newton off play-action. 

The Patriots went back to Byrd on third down on a “stop” route that was a great bit of route-running by the Pats wideout. This time, the corner has outside leverage in press-man, so Byrd fakes an inside release to get Quinten Dunbar to move inside, opening a release point for Byrd up the sideline. From there, Newton anticipates his break nicely, and Byrd decelerates in two steps again to create separation at the top of the route. 

In his first two games with the Patriots, Byrd’s speed has been a factor, even though he wasn’t targeted against Miami.

For Newton, these kinds of sideline routes are easy pickings as long as his accuracy and read of the defenders’ leverage is consistent. 

HIGH-LOW CONCEPTS 

Another vertical option for the Patriots that presents an easy read for Newton are high-low concepts, which killed the Seahawks linebackers. 

Here, the Patriots are stressing the middle of the field coverage at all three levels. First, the Seahawks rotate into cover-three from a two-high structure when they blitz the slot corner, forcing Jamal Adams into centerfield. Adams needs to stay back because he feels N’Keal Harry’s vertical route at the bottom breaking on the post. The Pats then send Edelman over the ball while running back Rex Burkhead releases out of the backfield, high-lowing Bobby Wagner in the middle of the field. Wagner makes a rare error by coming down to take Burkhead, leaving Edelman wide open behind him with Adams too deep to make a play.

On the final catch of the game, the Pats ran a levels concept with a corner route (Izzo), a deep crosser (Harry), and a shallow cross (Edelman), giving Cam a clear read of the defense. This time, Seattle is in man coverage, so Cam throws the ball up to Harry, his best jump-ball receiver, for a nice gain. 

The Pats put multiple defenders in conflict with these route combinations, with several threats coming into their coverages. 

FLOOD CONCEPTS

Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels also stressed Seattle’s coverages with flood concepts, leading to chunk yardage underneath the defense. 

On this play, Newton’s first read in the progression was to the left side on the “branch” concept, which is usually a fade route on the perimeter paired with a “branch” route from Edelman in the slot. The branch side is covered well, but the Pats have dig-wheel paired with a flat route by the running back on the backside. Seattle matches all the vertical routes, and Newton gets through his entire progression to get to Burkhead, who is wide open in the flat after Meyers and Harry clear out the coverage.

None of these concepts are new to football, or even the Patriots, but they play to Newton’s strengths.

CLEAROUT CONCEPTS

Lastly, the Patriots built off their three verticals design by sending receivers deep to clear out underneath coverages and got some advantageous matchups. 

On the final drive, the Pats stretched Seattle’s defense vertically and horizontally with terrific route spacing and design. The two vertical routes on the perimeter take the four-deep defenders out of the picture. At the same time, the releases by Izzo and Burkhead occupy the flats, leaving Edelman isolated on linebacker Bobby Wagner over the middle. Edelman continues his route across the field until Newton finds him for another first-down reception. 

Byrd and Harry made Seattle respect their speed on the outside, and McDaniels used that to hunt matchups on safeties and linebackers for Edelman.

RUN-PASS OPTIONS (RPO)

Lastly, the Patriots ran 13 run-pass options in the first two weeks of the season, and Newton is five-of-five with 37 passing yards throwing off RPO concepts. 

The Pats got a fourth-down conversion by running a power-read RPO with a backside slant from Harry. Newton is reading two defenders. First, safety Marquise Blair (no. 27), who is off the line. If Blaire comes downhill, Newton will throw. If he stays back, Newton goes to his run read. The edge defender determines his run read. Bruce Irvin (no. 51) stays outside, giving a handoff read to the quarterback. Newton takes the slant with the second-level defenders playing the run, but the Pats had the numbers to the run side as well. 

Later on, they ran another power RPO. Edelman and Byrd are running a slant and speed out from the backside stack alignment. Edelman’s slant was likely Newton’s first read. But the stack presents an off-coverage opportunity for Byrd on the speed out, so Cam throws with tons of anticipation to hit Byrd in the chest with the ball as he comes out of his break.

New England certainly didn’t have an RPO package like this with Tom Brady at quarterback, and they’re creating more downfield windows using vertical passing concepts as well. 

As we mentioned earlier, we could see an entirely new passing attack as New England goes week-to-week with the game plan. 

Vertical routes are a great way to beat cover-three and cover-four zones, Seattle’s staples, if you have the personnel to execute.

In the past, the Patriots have focused on stretching underneath zones with Brady. But now, they’re seeking deep shots with Cam.

The Seahawks invited the Patriots to throw the ball down the field, and Newton was successful in doing so on Sunday night.