Lazar: Cam Newton Has a Future with the Patriots, Defense Remains Bigger Concern

The Patriots are getting solid quarterback play from Cam Newton, even if it doesn't look the same as Tom Brady's offense.

1221
0
SHARE

Former Patriots quarterback Tom Brady spoiled New Englanders rotten over the last two decades, and we say that with all the love in the world.

During the Brady era, Pats fans were accustomed to seeing their offense come out on top in close games thanks often to a level of quarterback play that we will likely never see again. 

This season, New England is 1-4 on game-winning or trying drives. Cam Newton had the ball five times with a chance to tie or take the lead in the fourth quarter and failed on four of them, with the most recent stall coming on Sunday in the loss to the Houston Texans. 

The Patriots had game-winning or trying drives end at the Seattle 1, the Denver 24, the Buffalo 19, and now the Houston 24-yard line, which isn’t something we are used to seeing. 

Other elements of the game that we aren’t accustomed to are inconsistent footwork, sometimes poor short accuracy, and slower processing of defense before and after the snap. 

All of those things were, among other attributes, what made Brady great; clutch and surgical. 

The Patriots offense needs to work on the first talking point, clutch, as 1-4 in critical late-game situations is the difference between 4-6 and 6-4. 

However, we need to stop expecting Newton, who has never been Brady-like, to have pinpoint accuracy to all areas of the field and near-perfect mechanics every time he releases the ball. 

(via Sports Info Solutions)

On Sunday, Newton was 17-of-29 with an on-target percentage of 65.4 on throws under ten air yards. On throws of ten-plus air yards, he was 9-of-11 for 219 yards and a touchdown. 

In other words, our expectations are that every quarterback will pick apart the short stuff and get the ball out quickly because that’s how Brady has trained us to watch the game. 

Welcome to life without the GOAT where the next guy, whether it’s Newton or someone else, will play the game differently, which doesn’t make them bad. The rest of the league is used to it by now.

Newton is a different and more inconsistent passer but still gets the job done on the whole. 

Since fully recovering from COVID, Cam is 11th in expected points added per drop-back and ninth in completion percentage over expected (CPOE), a top 15 quarterback by most metrics. 

On Sunday, he was terrific at reading, manipulating, and throwing deep, and although some of his mistakes are confusing to Brady-impacted eyes, they’re common for most QBs. 

In the following audio breakdowns, we’ll take you through five of Newton’s throws on Sunday that show the 31-year-old playing the position at an extremely high level. 

Although there’s still more football to be played, if Newton maintains this level of play, there’s no reason to walk away from him at the end of the season if the money makes sense. 

After going over Newton’s tape, we’ll get into the Pats defense’s far more alarming coverage issues. 

1ST & 10 AT HST 47 (1ST, 11:03) C. Newton pass deep middle to D. Byrd for 17 yards

Here’s a great example of Newton reading a zone-dropper in the middle of the field and anticipating Byrd opening up in the second passing window. The Patriots ran play-action out of 21-personnel against an eight-man box. The fake gets most of the second level sucked into the line of scrimmage, but Texans linebacker Zack Cunningham reacts quickly enough to fall underneath Byrd’s dig route initially. Newton waits for an extra half-beat and then throws with anticipation to lead Byrd to the other side of Cunningham for a 17-yard completion. 

3RD & 10 AT NE 18 (3RD, 10:13) C. Newton pass deep middle to D. Byrd for 30 yards

In this play, the Patriots ran a dagger concept with Byrd (deep dig) and Meyers (middle-read) working in tandem. Meyers’s middle-read route clears out the coverage between the numbers against a cover-two structure. Newton hits Byrd in-stride coming across the field on a great display of operating well within the scheme’s structure. 

1ST & 10 AT HST 42 (3RD, 8:21) C. Newton pass deep middle to D. Byrd for 42-yard TD

Here’s the bomb to Byrd for New England’s longest touchdown of the season. The Texans are in a post-safety coverage, and the Pats put the deep safety in conflict with three deep routes: an over route (Meyers) and a “dino” concept or double posts. New England also added a switch release between Byrd and N’Keal Harry to get Byrd a free release. Newton reads the deep safety jumping Meyers’s route and throws against single coverage to Byrd on the post for six. 

2ND & 13 AT NE 27 (3RD, 0:22) C. Newton pass deep right to D. Byrd for 19 yards

This time, Jakobi Meyers initially looks like the open man streaking up the middle of the field on a vertical route. However, Newton reads the inverted cover-three structure and sees the outside corner at the bottom of the screen working over the top of Meyers. Instead of throwing into coverage, he pump fakes to Meyers, getting the new deep-third defender over Byrd to bite into the middle of the field, and comes back to Byrd along the sideline for 19 yards. 

3RD & 8 AT HST 42 (4TH, 11:52) C. Newton pass deep left to D. Byrd for 16 yards

Another gotta-have-it third down for the Patriots late in the game. Newton reads the slot defender that initially falls underneath Byrd’s deep out route. When the slot defender cheats up just a little to sit on N’Keal Harry’s shallow crosser, Newton throws a bullet to Byrd along the sideline into the passing window created by the defensive backs movement. 

PATRIOTS DEFENSE REMAINS BIGGER CONCERN

As we predicted in my Patriots game plan, Bill Belichick went with a similar coverage-heavy strategy that he used against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in Week 4. 

The most common criticism of New England’s performance on defense was a lack of pressure on Watson, but with only five blitzes, Belichick wasn’t focused on pressuring the quarterback. 

New England rushed either three (nine) or four (35) defenders on 44 of Houston’s 47 passing plays, intending to shut down the Texans’ receivers and contain Watson in the pocket. 

The Pats wanted their secondary with seven or eight in coverage to blanket Houston’s pass-catchers, and their failure to do so was a more significant concern than a lacking pass rush. 

This season, the Pats defense is dead-last, 32nd, in defending throws between the numbers, allowing a league-high success rate of 65 percent.

Watson and the Texans took advantage by targeting their tight ends in the middle of the field to the tune of nine catches for 134 yards. 

New England’s coverages rely on defenders playing to their leverage. In cover-one, man coverage defenders with outside leverage funnel receivers into their middle of the field help. 

Against the Texans, there were far too many instances where the zone defenders (robbers) didn’t close the middle of the field, leaving man coverage players out-leverage all afternoon. 

3RD & 10 AT NE 25 (1ST, 3:56) D. Watson pass short left to J. Akins for 22 yards

In the audio breakdown above, the Pats don’t jam Texans tight end Jordan Akins at the line, giving him a head of steam into his route. Then, Jason McCourty is playing with outside leverage against an in-breaking route and doesn’t receive the necessary help from Adrian Phillips dropping into the crosser window off the line. McCourty can’t play tighter coverage on a terrific throw from Watson; he needs Phillips to leverage Akins’s route coming across, but the Pats safety just can’t get there. 

3RD & 4 AT 50 (2ND, 5:28) D. Watson pass deep right to J. Akins for 25 yards

Here’s another example of the Patriots playing their cover-one double robber scheme where rookie safety Kyle Dugger is left without middle of the field help. Dugger has Akins one-on-one and gets beat a little at the top of the route, but Devin McCourty doesn’t drop into the crosser window to help an out-leveraged Dugger out. Again, the zone defenders need to close the middle of the field, or else Dugger is chasing Akins across with no help inside. No bueno. 

Watson also hit a few key third downs late in the game against zone coverage, manipulating underneath zones with his eyes exceptionally well. 

3RD & 4 AT HST 31 (4TH, 6:19) D. Watson pass short middle to W. Fuller for 14 yards

In this play, the Patriots show blitz and then drop three defenders off the line into short zones. The release out of the backfield and Watson’s eyes get rookie linebacker Josh Uche to lean towards the running back, and Watson rips it between Uche and Dugger for a huge conversion. If the Pats get Houston off the field there, it remains a four-point game. Instead, the Texans drove into field goal range to make it 27-20 while taking two more minutes off the clock. 

As the rest of the Patriots season unfolds, the conversation will undoubtedly be about the future of the quarterback position in New England.

However, the issues on the defensive side of the ball for Bill Belichick are far more concerning than failures to execute in key situations on offense, which will get better over time. 

Newton and the offensive line will, and have shown at times already, get on the same page picking up blitzes. Plus, hopefully, the Pats will upgrade their pass-catchers in the offseason and found something with this group. 

The Patriots are getting quality quarterback play from Newton this season, even if it doesn’t look the same as when Brady was under center, but the defense is a major concern moving forward.