The problems with the Patriots’ offense are far-reaching and go beyond one player or coach; everyone needs to improve.
New England currently ranks 30th in expected points added per drop-back, 27th in pass DVOA, 22nd in success rate, and has the fewest passes of 20-plus yards through seven games (12).
The Patriots have yet to generate a touchdown on the ground or through the air of over 20 yards, one of two teams, which shows how little explosiveness they have as an offensive unit.
And they also lead the league with 11 interceptions this season, with ten in their last four games.
There’s no sugarcoating how lousy the offense has looked recently, they’ve been awful, and it’s tough to watch.
To salvage the on-field product, we must identify the issues focusing on three categories: quarterback Cam Newton, his supporting cast, and coaching.
Then, we’ll dive into ways that all three can improve to get the best out of this group.
LACK OF PASS-CATCHING TALENT
We can decipher where the Patriots’ passing offense is talent-wise by how defenses are lining up against them.
Julian Edelman still sees a good amount of bracket coverage in the middle of the field, but teams are doing it with zero fear of the other eligible receivers in the pattern.
In their first seven games, the Pats saw a noticeably high amount of either single-high or zero coverages (no deep safety), with 67 percent of their plays coming against those structures.
Playing with one safety deep, which teams do 60 percent of the time against the Pats, means the defense has another defender in the box to stop the run or close the middle of the field.
The vulnerabilities of single-high coverage come in the deep part of the field and with one-on-one matchups for outside receivers.
However, when defenses don’t fear those outside receivers, it’s an easy call to live with one-on-ones for Damiere Byrd, N’Keal Harry, or Jakobi Meyers on the outside.
Here’s a great example. The Pats try to space the field with a levels concept (deep dig, short dig) to Newton’s left and a post route taking the top off to his right. The 49ers rotate into cover-three (single-high), and when the safety jumps the deep dig, Newton throws an interception on a bomb to Jakobi Meyers.
When Jakobi Meyers, who runs a 4.63-second 40-yard dash, is the targeted receiver on a deep post, you know you have issues.
New England currently ranks 30th in expected points added against single-high structures and 28th in EPA against man coverage.
The game-plan against the Patriots is simple: load the box, crowd the line of scrimmage, and force Newton and his receivers to beat you over the top. So far, defenses are winning.
CAM NEWTON’S STRUGGLES
Now that we know the defensive strategy, let’s break down some tape.
Plenty of the Pats’ troubles offensively also fall on Newton, who is not making the easy throws consistently and is holding the ball for far too long.
Last week, Newton’s average time to throw was 3.13 seconds, and that’s not going to cut it in the style of offense New England runs.
Although Newton isn’t working with much, the expectation is that he’ll hit “schemed” throws, or layups, as any viable NFL starter would be expected to convert.
With subpar receivers, nobody expects Newton to complete several big-time throws a week, but he isn’t elevating the talent around him or hitting the easy ones, and that’s a problem.
Mechanically, the Pats quarterback is in a funk after a long layoff due to COVID-19 halted his progress, and his delayed processing is screwing with the timing of the operation.
PROCESSING SPEED/MECHANICAL ISSUES
The Patriots’ second series of the game was a microcosm of issues for the Pats offense and Newton’s struggles as a processor.
Like most, the Patriots offense relies heavily on anticipation and timing, and as Newton waits to throw the football, things, such as the protection, are breaking down around him.
On Sunday, Cam’s time to throw was a lengthy, and the 49ers’ average time to pressure was 2.93 seconds, meaning the heat was mostly a result of Newton holding the ball.
On New England’s second third-down of the game, they face a third-and-four. The 49ers rotate into a robber coverage with the backside safety cutting off Julian Edelman’s shallow crosser. Newton gets stuck on Edelman’s route for nearly three seconds, even pump-faking to a very covered Jules, and is late coming off his first read. Once he does, James White gets a one-on-one against an edge defender dropping into coverage and wins easily. However, by the time Newton throws the ball, 3.15 seconds have passed, and the strong-side safety is already closing on White (he doesn’t care about helping in the deep part of the field).
The end zone angle view gives us a look at two mechanical issues that we consistently see from Newton. One, he steps backward with his lead foot, so he’s throwing with his feet parallel to the line of scrimmage. Two, he locks out his lead leg as he throws. Both of those things contribute to “breaking the chain,” forcing an errant throw because of poor mechanics.
Newton has to take advantage of favorable matchups when he gets them, and that’s a first down if he got to White sooner.
Here’s an audio breakdown from last week of Cam missing a potential touchdown on a double-move to Byrd due to poor mechanics.
We need to live with a few funky misses per game from Newton, but his slow trigger-finger is becoming a huge problem.
In this example, the Patriots ran a Yankee Concept with the hopes that N’Keal Harry’s post route would clear out the left side for Damiere Byrd’s over route.
Once Newton gets to the top of his drop, the defense is bracketing Harry’s post route out of a quarters structure, meaning the deep over is already open.
Instead of throwing from a clean pocket, Newton holds for an extra beat, and the pressure by his feet causes an overthrow.
There’s a lack of anticipation between Newton and his receivers. He’s holding the ball, waiting to see definitively that a receiver is open rather than trusting himself to throw to a spot, as he should’ve above.
In this play, the Patriots are running a day-one staple: HOSS Z Juke. Newton’s process isn’t all that bad here. His post-snap read tells him the defense is in a quarters structure, which means Edelman’s option route is isolated on a linebacker from the number three spot to the right.
Harry correctly converts his route to a post pattern against a two-high coverage. Typically, the defense is three over two on the HOSS part of the concept (hitch-seam), so the quarterback works the juke route. But my theory is Newton, who’s first look is to Harry up the seam, would’ve thrown to an open Harry if he trusted his young receiver enough to make an anticipatory throw. If Newton throws the ball as Harry is breaking, he’ll hit him for a nice gain. Instead, he comes off Harry, Edelman is covered, and then mayhem.
Later on, Newton got stuck on the seam again running HOSS. This time, the defense is in a match coverage where they stay over the top of the seam route against single-high. Usually, the quarterback reads seam to hitch from single-high. Here, Newton reads seam, stays there for nearly three seconds, then goes to Edelman again, and throws an interception when Edelman moves late. The hitch to Burkhead to the left is the play there, but regardless, that’s an example of quarterback and receiver not being on the same page.
The Patriots are also struggling with producing off under-center play-action, their bread and butter during the Brady era.
New England’s usage of 21-personnel (fullback) and their ability to mask deficiencies at receiver are suffering greatly from their inability to run play-action effectively; it’s killing their offense.
The Pats use play-action on 38.7 percent of Newton’s drop-backs, the second-most in the league, but they haven’t been effective.
New England is currently 23rd in yards per attempt off under-center play-action (7.2) and 26th in EPA on those plays. Last season, they averaged 9.1 yards per attempt and were tenth in expected points added.
Most of the play-action struggles are on the quarterback because it’s his job to sell the fake and then make a throw before the defense resets.
On his first interception of the game, Newton’s fake fails to get the linebackers to come downhill to defend the run. He’s not extending the ball out as he would in a handoff, and there’s no deception, where the defense might not see the football for a split-second as Newton turns his back to them. Jakobi Meyers is never open on this play, but Newton forces it to him anyway.
Then, there are Newton’s issues with processing speed off play-action.
Here, the defense is in cover-six with quarters to one side and cover-two on the other. Damiere Byrd is open initially on his go route, and Newton wants it but hesitates for too long, and the safety recovers over the top. The correct process then would be to check it down to three open check-downs. But there’s one more issue; Harry is open on his dig route as well. A deep dig route is perfect against quarters, and if Newton gets off Byrd sooner, he’ll get to Harry, his second read in the progression, and make that throw. Again, he’s holding the ball and not anticipating passing windows.
Newton isn’t known for being a consistent thrower or processor, but these are mistakes that people in Carolina say are uncharacteristic of his past performance.
The Pats quarterback isn’t trusting what he sees and is struggling to get through a progression, which is rookie-type stuff, and his mechanics are a mess.
Newton is more than capable of performing better than he has, and that’s why I’m so hard on him for making this many errors.
Although there’s a longer discussion about talent evaluation and development, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels isn’t doing enough to help the current group.
Most will think the Patriots need to simplify their offense and avoid so many option routes, but it’s more about finding a chunk of the playbook that Newton is comfortable with running.
Another narrative you’ll hear this week is that the Pats need to return to “bully ball” and the game-script they had against the Dolphins in Week 1. In theory, that’s a good idea.
— Michael Leone (@2Hats1Mike) October 27, 2020
However, the Pats run on early-downs far more than any other team given the situation, and even with the third-highest EPA per rush on their attempts, they find themselves trailing in games.
With that formula, New England is middle of the pack in terms of win probability entering the fourth quarter; if you’re going to be a run-heavy offense, you better dominate, and play-action needs to be a factor. Right now, neither of those things are true.
The running game can be significantly more dynamic by adding similar motions and misdirection plays that we see out of the Niners or Ravens.
The Patriots currently rank 18th in utilizing pre-snap motion and shifts (47.2), far too low. In 2019, the Pats were third using motion on 64.4 percent of their plays. For some reason, the motion is missing.
Last week, we discussed them borrowing Baltimore’s “escort” motions and arc blocks as a way to take back the numbers advantage when defenses key on their designed quarterback runs.
Unfortunately, we have yet to see those schemes, and New England is also underutilizing another strength of their offense.
The Pats aren’t currently getting enough out of their running backs in the passing game, where they’re only averaging 6.6 yards per attempt.
One of New England’s only mismatches is running backs isolated on linebackers and safeties. Yet, the Patriots are only sprinkling in targets for James White and Rex Burkhead down the field.
White’s family situation and recent absences from practice could be a major factor, but Burkhead is also a talented pass-catcher getting underutilized.
Both White (-0.5) and Burkhead’s (-0.4) average target depth shows they’re mostly running screen passes and short throws. With these skill players, that’s simply not going to work. One target over ten yards for their running backs? Not enough.
The Patriots need to present chances for their pass-catching backs to give them explosive plays or take coverage away from others up the field.
San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan showed McDaniels what it looks like to utilize their running backs as vertical passing threats.
Here, the Niners call “all-go HB seam” with jet motion. The vertical route out of the backfield pulls edge defender John Simon upfield and out of the flat. With the Pats in man coverage, Jon Jones gets caught in traffic and can’t get to his man on the motion, and Garoppolo has an easy completion to Deebo Samuel, a throw behind the line of scrimmage that produces a big play.
The Patriots need to get more creative with their usage of motion in their running game and passing game, which should open up easier opportunities to create explosive plays.
McDaniels needs to find ways to make up for lousy skill talent, and a stagnant offense heavily reliant on early-down rushing success won’t work.
The window dressing and misdirection must increase dramatically, or the Patriots offense won’t get any better.