FOXBORO — in what could be Cam Newton’s final game as the Patriots’ starting quarterback, New England beat the New York Jets 28-14 at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
Although a loss would’ve been nice for draft positioning, the Jets didn’t give the Patriots a chance to lose with the way they played in the final game of the Adam Gase era.
The sequence towards the end of the third quarter for New York reeked of a team already planning their offseason vacations: terrible Darnold interception, wide-open touchdown to Devin Asias, three-and-out by the Jets, then another busted coverage for a touchdown to Sony Michel.
If you wanted the Patriots to lose, you were not alone, but the Jets didn’t make losing an option.
As for Newton and the Patriots, ESPN’s Adam Schefter hinted that the pairing will likely part ways this offseason, but head coach Bill Belichick wasn’t having any of it in his post-game video conference.
“Is that one of your anonymous reports?” Belichick quipped at the question. “I don’t think that’s what Adam said. You should go to talk to Adam.”
Newton and the Patriots’ relationship is a little like that girl you met where the first few weeks were great, but then you realize that you don’t actually have anything in common. Both parties put in the effort, it’s nobody’s fault that it didn’t work, but you aren’t compatible.
In the first month or so, we were legitimately discussing the possibility of a contract extension for Newton. Then adversity hit, and the quarterback and scheme weren’t a match due to stylistic differences.
Now the best thing for both sides is to admit the relationship isn’t working before they’re in too deep.
With an eye towards 2021, here are ten things we learned as the Pats finish the season 7-9:
1. Cam Newton Delivers Four TDs in Potential Swan Song
The only way the 2020 season could end for the Patriots was with Cam Newton throwing a season-high three touchdown passes in one of his best passing performances of the year.
Along with the three touchdown tosses and a touchdown catch, the former MVP also ran for 79 yards on 11 carries, including a 49-yard run, the longest by a quarterback in team history. Newton’s 592 rushing yards this season are also a franchise record.
On the 49-yarder, the Pats ran their power-read scheme where they used a pulling guard as a lead-blocker, and Newton reads the play-side edge defender. When the Jets’ edge defenders stay outside, Newton takes it up the middle, where Jermaine Eluemunor and Devin Asiasi create a hole. Newton then gets some great blocks downfield from left guard Joe Thuney and wide receiver N’Keal Harry and reaches a top speed of over 17 miles per hour.
Cam added 0.26 expected points per drop-back as a passer and finished with a solid completion percentage over expected (-0.6). Whether it was more about the Jets defense or Newton, it was a solid outing for a quarterback that struggled mightily to throw the ball recently.
On his best pass of the day, Newton converted a third-and-20 by hitting Jakobi Meyers on a deep dig route. The Pats QB nicely stepped up in the pocket to buy time, stayed balanced, and threw with a good base to complete a strike to Meyers that moved the chains.
Although the season was disappointing, Newton finished what’s likely his only season in New England on a high note.
2. Patriots Edge Rusher Chase Winovich Delivers Two-Sack Performance
In recent weeks, I’ve written about Winovich’s murky fit as a three-down player in Bill Belichick’s defense due to his struggles setting the edge in the running game.
However, Winovich’s skill as a pass rusher was on full display, and those are the flashes that make Wino’s talents apparent and make you want the team to invest in his development.
Here, the Patriots line Winovich up over the right guard in a two-point stance. His explosiveness off the ball and flexibility to dip underneath Greg Van Roten is too much for the Jets’ right guard, and Winovich sacks Darnold.
On Winovich’s first sack, the Pats ran one of their vintage pass-rush schemes, a long stunt. A long stunt uses two interior penetrators to occupy three offensive linemen and then wraps the edge defender around to pressure the QB up the middle. Jets center Connor McGovern doesn’t pass Byron Cowart to left guard Pat Elfelin, and Wino is unblocked to the quarterback.
As the Patriots rebuild their front seven, finding an every-down role for one of their most talented defenders in Winovich is a must, even if that means moving him to inside linebacker at times.
3. Patriots TE Devin Asiasi Makes First Splash of Rookie Season
New England’s rookie tight ends are finally on the board as Devin Asiasi made his first career catch and later his first career touchdown reception in the win over the Jets.
The Pats rookie finished the game with two catches for 39 yards and a touchdown, with quarterback Cam Newton saying that Asiasi flashes his talents every week in practice.
On his first career catch, New England ran one of its staples from the Gronk era: “Charles Barkley.” No, really, they call it Charles Barkley. Charles Barkley is a scheme where the backside guard (Thuney) pulls to simulate a power run. The pulling guard influences the linebackers to step into their run gaps, and the tight end then crosses behind them. The scheme works to give Asiasi an opportunity, and the rookie tight end goes down to make the catch.
Following his first career catch, Asiasi caught a 26-yard touchdown pass from Newton.
This time, the Jets appear to bust the coverage on a man-blitz scheme. None of the Jets match Asiasi’s vertical release, leaving the post-safety to defend a corner route from the tight end. Asiasi gains leverage on the deep safety and nicely tracks the ball in the air for six.
Although it took longer than most hoped, it was good to see Asiasi, who has held up nicely as an in-line blocker down the stretch, to make some plays in the passing game.
4. Pats CB JC Jackson’s Up-and-Down CB1 Audition
Patriots cornerback JC Jackson continued a string of uneven performances without Stephon Gilmore after allowing four catches for 62 yards into his coverage but added a second-half interception.
The one big play Jackson allowed was a 53-yard reception by Jets wideout Breshad Perriman, who has Jackson’s number this season. There were two possibilities on the coverage: 1. Jackson got beat 2. Jackson was expecting deep safety Myles Bryant to jump the crosser. We can only make an educated guess, but Jackson opening his gate towards the sideline suggests that he thought Perriman would run vertically upfield. Instead, Perriman cuts on the over route, and when Bryant stays over the top of the clear-out receiver, Perriman gets loose.
Last week, Bills wideout Stefon Diggs beat Jackson on a similar crossing concept that is an excellent single-high beater, which the Pats play often.
As he usually does, the Pats CB answered with his ninth interception of the season, and his 11 total takeaways in 2020 tied a franchise record. Still, there’s room for improvement.
5. Where Does Jakobi Meyers Fit on Pass-Catching Pecking Order?
Although Meyers didn’t match his performance earlier this season against the Jets, where he had a career-high 169 receiving yards, he was once again a problem for New York’s secondary.
Meyers had a team-high 68 receiving yards on six catches with four first-down makers.
We already highlighted his downfield route-running on the third-and-20 earlier, so here’s an example of his savviness in attacking short zones. The Pats clear out the underneath coverage with a vertical route by Asiasi, and Meyers finds the soft spot in the zone. Once he catches it, he immediately gets into YAC mode with a sweet spin move and picks up 13 yards.
In his last 11 games, Meyers accumulated 722 receiving yards on 58 receptions, which is 1,050 yards if you take his per game average (65.6) and pace it out for a 16-game season.
With the Pats feeding whoever is in the slot, it’s not out of the question to think Meyers could go for over 1,000 yards in a season in this system.
Whether or not he’s a #1 or #2 is ultimately irrelevant; Meyers is a starting “Z” receiver in New England’s scheme that will only benefit from an “X” receiver that can stretch the field.
The Patriots need to find a top-dog or two in their offense, but Meyers can play second fiddle.
6. Assessing James White’s Future With the Patriots
Nobody is questioning James White’s place in Patriots history or his talents as a receiving back. It’s also understandable that his play dipped a bit this season in a horrendous year for his family.
On Sunday, we actually saw flashes of the old James White with four catches and a touchdown.
Still, White is an unrestricted free agent this offseason and will turn 29 years old in less than a month. Without Brady feeding him on check-downs and third-down matchups, his production is down, and White is getting beat more often than usual in pass protection as well.
White has now allowed a quarterback pressure in each of the last four games, bringing his season total to a career-high 11, including a sack of Newton on Sunday where the Jets brought an overload blitz and the Pats running back along with the right side of the O-Line caved inward.
The Patriots are a better team thanks to White the player and person, but you wonder what the future holds. White might be better off in a different situation at this stage of his career.
7. Patriots Rookie Kyle Dugger is a Fun Watch In-Person (or on TV)
During the first quarter of today’s game, my eyes were fixed on do-it-all rookie Kyle Dugger, who continues to make plays.
Dugger played several different roles, but he was deployed primarily in the box, where 53 of his 63 snaps were on Sunday, especially after the injury to Adrian Phillips. There’s no doubt that he’s a downhill enforcer against the run, has the range to play sideline-to-sideline, and is coming along as a coverage player.
Dugger’s next step is improving his zone drops from the second level and his technique in man coverage. But the pieces are all there for him to blossom into a heck of a player.
8. Patriots UDFA Myles Bryant, DB Joejuan Williams Get Extended Playing Time
The Patriots let the kids play to a degree, with undrafted rookie Myles Bryant (44 snaps) and second-year defensive back Joejuan Williams (36) seeing time.
Bryant had several teaching moments and a flurry of mistakes on one drive. He missed a tackle in the flat, didn’t attack an interception on a pass that was eventually caught by Jamison Crowder, and was late rotating over on Chris Herndon’s touchdown, then drew a flag for a hit on a defenseless receiver (those penalties are bogus, by the way).
New England tried Bryant out at free safety in Week 17, but I still think he’s at his best when he can cover man-to-man either in the box or playing over the slot. His lack of length and range makes it difficult for him to play the deep-middle, so I don’t think free safety is the spot for him.
As for Williams, his effort to make an open-field tackle on Perriman’s 53-yarder was questionable and makes you wonder if those kinds of effort plays show up at practice too.
Lacking in that department and overall focus on the task at hand might be why Williams can’t crack the regular CB rotation. When he’s out there, he mostly holds his own in coverage. Williams plays to his strengths by being physical at the line and using his length to disrupt at the catch point.
There must be something going on behind the scenes that, along with McCourty’s leadership and experience, has Belichick playing Jason McCourty over Williams at outside corner.
On a positive note, I think there are roles for both Bryant and Williams on the 2021 roster.
9. Pats’ Gunner Olszewski is a Stud Punt Returner
After training camp, I thought Gunner might be a factor at wide receiver this season. He couldn’t carve out a role on offense, but Olszewski is a dynamite punt returner. The second-year pro averaged 12 yards per punt return on Sunday with a 17-yard return, bringing his season average to an impressive 17.3. As Belichick described to the CBS broadcast team, Gunner is aggressive but not reckless.
As he showed on his 17-yard return, he knows how to make the first tackler miss and then immediately gets north-south to accelerate upfield. Olszewski’s return style takes the same shape as coach Troy Brown’s and mentor Julian Edelman; make a move, get vertical, and run downhill.
10. Play of the Game: Jakobi Meyers’s 19-Yard Touchdown Pass to Cam Newton
If the Cam Newton era is truly over, it didn’t end without a little fun. The Patriots dialed up another double-pass with converted college and high school quarterback Jakobi Meyers.
This time, Newton handed the ball off to Sony Michel, who flipped it to Meyers, and then Cam released upfield on a wheel route. The Jets defense didn’t cover the quarterback, and Meyers made a much easier throw than his first touchdown pass of the season. Who doesn’t like a little trickery in a meaningless Week 17 game?