When Cam Newton made his first start with the Patriots, New England’s QB-centric run game looked like it would be a force all season.
In Week 1, the Patriots averaged 5.0 yards per rush on read-option plays. But that number is down to 2.1 yards per carry in Newton’s last three starts.
The drastic shift in effectiveness for the Patriots’ Cam-based rushing attack is due to a personnel shortage along the offensive line and defenses preparing for the Newton package.
New England ran its seven offensive linemen package on seven plays in the first two weeks of the season, producing four touchdowns and 1.14 expected points added per play.
Due to injuries along the offensive line, the Pats weren’t able to use their jumbo package in Newton’s last two starts, logging zero snaps with extra offensive linemen despite its early-season success.
The Dolphins weren’t ready for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to feature Newton as a runner, so they allowed the Patriots to create two-on-ones on their option runs.
Here, the Patriots ran power-read with Rex Burkhead in the backfield next to Newton. They put the right defensive end, no. 90, Shaq Lawson, in conflict. He can either play the QB run or the running back handoff, but he can’t play both. Newton forces Lawson to decide. When the Dolphins DE crashes, he hands it to Burkhead, who attacks the vacated edge.
Earlier in the game, the Pats did the same thing to old friend Kyle Van Noy. Van Noy sets the edge this time, so Newton keeps on the power-read up the middle for a first-down run.
Now that defenses are gearing up for option football out of New England, they’re no longer allowing the Patriots to put their edge defenders in conflict.
Instead, teams like the Broncos are scheming up ways to shut down Newton’s option runs, as Patriots head coach Bill Belichick told CLNS Media this week.
“Teams have a respect for our ability to run the ball in different situations and different types of running plays. Each week, I think we’ve seen a certain level of awareness that it looks like teams are putting on containing his [Newton] run opportunities and some of the plays that we’ve run before,” Belichick said.
“So, that also helps set up some of the other things. If they’re watching for him, that lightens things somewhere else and so forth. So, for us, we just need to do a good job of taking advantage of those opportunities and having a way of balancing things so that if they’re taking away one thing, then hopefully that helps us somewhere else.”
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels also hinted that adjustments are on the way for the Cam running package.
“That’s football. You aren’t going to run one thing the same way for too long. The players and coaches in the NFL are too good,” McDaniels told CLNS Media.
Denver limited Newton’s designed running opportunities by using a scrape exchange. Instead of allowing a two-on-one, the defense uses this technique to assign a defender to the running back and quarterback.
(via Matt Bowen)
The edge rusher slants inside to stop an interior run while the off-ball linebacker behind him sets the edge, so a two-on-one now becomes a two-on-two.
Here’s an example of the Broncos running a scrape exchange on Sunday. The end crashing inside forces Newton to give the ball to Burkhead, but the rotating linebacker sets the edge, so there’s nowhere for Rex to go.
Compare the rush attempt against Denver to the plays versus Miami, and you’ll see how defenses are slowing down New England’s option runs.
The good news for the Patriots is that there are always adjustments the offense can make when defenses take away something they do well.
Belichick pointed out taking advantage of defenses overplaying the run, but my theory is that McDaniels will borrow from Greg Roman’s playbook in Baltimore to combat scrape exchanges.
The Ravens began to see scrape exchanges to defend their read-option plays, so Roman installed “arc” blocks and “escort” motions to take back the numbers.
With these unique blocking actions, Roman provides a lead-blocker to occupy the edge defender on scrape exchanges, basically turning a two-on-two into a three-on-two (or more).
The Ravens give Lamar Jackson two lead-blockers with both an arc block and escort motion on this play. The “escort” is the receiver in motion while the arc blocker is the fullback. When the Bengals defense runs a scrape exchange, Jackson has a kick-out block on the edge defender and goes untouched for nearly 40 yards.
Newton, a power runner versus Jackson’s explosive style, and the Pats running backs, might not recreate Jackson’s athleticism in the open field. Still, the blocks will help them get downhill off the edge.
Plus, once defenses start to adjust to new blocks, that’ll open up space elsewhere, where the Patriots could attack defenses with play-action, or RPOs, with the defenders flowing to the blockers.
The Patriots currently don’t incorporate much pre-snap motion in their option-run package, which could speak to a lack of practice time to implement new techniques.
But continuing to run option plays out of one-back sets with stationary blockers at the snap will lead to the same results; defenses figured it out.
(Keene gets a pancake as a lead-blocker from the backfield)
Along with adding different blocks, the Patriots could use rookie tight end Dalton Keene, who is athletic enough to make those blocks, as an “escort” or lead-blocker from the backfield.
Keene was injured to start the season and a healthy scratch of late, but lead-blocking on option runs is certainly a great role for him.
The Patriots could also use second-year wide receiver N’Keal Harry as an “escort” for Newton thanks to his size and willingness to block.
Assuming they can get back on the practice field, McDaniels will surely make adjustments to get the designed quarterback runs back on track.