Patriots Game Plan: Cam Newton, Pats Offense Have Legit Test Against Vic Fangio’s Defense

Let’s try this again: the Patriots will welcome the Denver Broncos (1-3) to Gillette Stadium on Sunday.

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Let’s try this again: the Patriots will welcome the Denver Broncos (1-3) to Gillette Stadium this weekend to hopefully, finally, play their fifth game of the 2020 season. 

New England and Denver’s matchup was rescheduled three times, twice due to the Patriots’ coronavirus scare, but all parties are hopeful that they’ll kick off on Sunday afternoon. 

The surprise bye week allowed both clubs’ starting quarterbacks to get healthy, although Cam Newton and Broncos quarterback Drew Lock were in very different situations. 

Newton was removed from the COVID-19/reserve list on Wednesday and returned to practice on Thursday, with all signs pointing to him assuming his starting role after missing only one game (at Kansas City). 

As for Lock, the second-year quarterback injured his throwing shoulder in the first quarter of Denver’s loss to the Steelers in Week 2 and will return against the Pats this week. 

Newton last played in a game for the Patriots three weeks ago on Sept. 27 against the Raiders, and it was a forgettable performance by his standards. 

New England’s QB1 struggled with his downfield accuracy, registering a negative completion percentage over expectation of minus-7.9 with a bad interception on a scramble drill attempt as well.

As we documented then, most of Newton’s issues stemmed from poor decision making, mainly over-aggressiveness, rather than actual ball placement.

On this play, the Patriots ran their high-low crossers combination, a levels concept that tries to give the quarterback a defined read. Damiere Byrd’s post route at the bottom of the screen creates the necessary space for the two receivers crossing over the middle. 

The Raiders are in a cover-three structure, and as Newton makes his final decision, the boundary corner over Byrd peels off as he passes him off to the post safety. With four defenders eying Edelman, the proper throw would be to N’Keal Harry on the short crosser. 

Instead, Newton tries to get a bigger play and throws an interceptable pass to Edelman. If Newton reads the post-safety and holds an extra beat, he also has Byrd all alone downfield because the middle of the field safety tries to jump Edelman’s crosser. Cam had two open receivers and threw to the only covered option. 

We often discuss ball placement as the biggest predictor for solid downfield accuracy, but a quarterback’s decision making is just as important when it comes to completing passes. 

Newton will face a difficult mental test this week with Broncos head coach Vic Fangio’s defense seldom giving quarterbacks clear pictures.

Denver is without star pass-rusher Von Miller, but Fangio, who Belichick called “one of the best defensive coaches in the league,” confuses even veteran quarterbacks.

Newton, and his receivers, need to be mentally sharp against the Broncos defense this week. 

WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL 

The Broncos defense is currently tenth in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted value over average metric (DVOA) through five weeks; this is no cupcake for Newton and company.

Last summer, some of the NFL’s top offensive minds said that Fangio’s defense in Chicago, where he was defensive coordinator under Matt Nagy, was their most difficult matchup. 

The challenge with Fangio’s scheme is that he rarely shows the quarterback his coverage before the snap, rotating his safeties as interchangeable chess pieces on the backend. 

Fangio will show the quarterback a two-high structure, then rotate into a single-high coverage, or even a combination coverage where they’ll play it differently on each half of the field. 

The heavy safety rotations and combo coverages confuse even the smartest of quarterbacks, as we see with Brady above against Fangio’s cover-six scheme. 

PASSING ATTACK

Fangio will spin the dial, and McDaniels will need to put his quarterback in a position to succeed with different coverage beaters or throwing against the rotations.

Jets quarterback Sam Darnold had success against the Broncos in their last game by hitting crossing routes against their single-high coverages, something we see a lot out of the Pats. 

On this play, Denver rotates into a cover-one structure with a weak side rotation, so the Jets send their “X” receiver on the backside across the field. There’s no help in the middle of the field with the clear out at the bottom of the screen occupying the post-safety and an underneath route occupying the low-hole defender.  

Here’s another example of how to beat Denver’s post-snap rotations. This time, the weak side safety rotates into the deep-middle while the strong safety plays robber. Darnold makes a leverage throw with the rotation to the branch route from the slot receiver. 

The Patriots can attack the Broncos secondary in similar ways by using their safety rotations against them while also dialing up two-high beaters when they get cover-six structures. 

Man vs Zone – who ran each coverage scheme the most in 2017? | NFL News, Rankings and Statistics | PFF

With cover-six, the defense is playing a combination coverage with half the field playing cover-two and the other side playing cover-four. Usually, cover-four is to the passing strength while cover-two is on the weak side. The cover-two side has a deep safety over the top of the backside receiver allowing the corner to cover check-downs and play outside runs. The cover-four side also has the freedom to bracket vertical routes from inside receivers in 2×1 or 3×1 formations.

One way McDaniels makes it easier on his quarterbacks is to give them different coverage beaters to each side, presenting them with answers to both single-high and two-high structures.

The Seahawks defense played mostly quarters or cover-three against the Pats in Week 2, so McDaniels gave Cam answers to both tests. 

Here, the Patriots are running their branch concept to Newton’s left, a good call against quarterbacks coverage. On the other side, they have post-dig-flat, presenting a good post-safety beater. Newton will work the “branch” side first, and if it’s not there, he comes back to his check-down. The Seahawks cover the branch side well, but the post-dig combination clears out the right flat for Burkhead. 

Patriots running back James White had eight catches for 57 yards and two touchdowns working the weak-side hook/flat defenders on options routes against Fangio in 2018. 

Another cover-six beater is play-action passes to the quarters side because the strong-side safety is often involved in the run fit. The play-fake will put the safety in conflict and could give the offense opportunities up the seam if the safety bites on the fake. 

Fangio and the Broncos run a complex coverage system with veteran safeties Justin Simons and Kareem Jackson capable of executing different techniques. 

Newton will need to be on his game, or they’ll be throwing into coverage all afternoon. 

RUSHING ATTACK

The strength-on-strength matchup in this one is New England’s rushing attack (third in DVOA) versus Denver’s run defense (seventh in DVOA). 

The Broncos defensive line is built a lot like New England’s, with stout interior run defenders Shelby Harris and Mike Purcell playing similar roles to Lawrence Guy in Fangio’s 2-4 nickel front. Plus, 2018 first-round pick Bradley Chubb is another physical run defender on the edge. 

Trying to run right at this group will not get great results, even with the Patriots’ offensive line. Denver’s opponents are averaging just 2.7 yards per rush on interior runs this season. 

The Patriots could try to attack the edges by running away from the two-gappers with wide zone. But most of the big runs against Denver came by folding the defense with gap schemes. 

Here, the Steelers use heavy personnel with two tight ends and an H-back to stress Denver’s run fits. They then ran a counter play with the backside guard pulling to the play-side edge defender. Chubb goes inside the puller to aggressively blow up the play and gets washed down, presenting James Connor with easy access to the edge. 

New England runs several variations of counter such as one-back counter, two-back counter, and quarterback counter. Above, the Pats ran a cross-lead counter with an H-Back and puller coming across the formation. Unlike in the Steelers example, Kyle Van Noy stays outside the puller, but the combination block by Izzo and Onwenu on the right side and the kick-out by Thuney opens a small crease for J.J. Taylor.

Pittsburgh also ran draw plays on the Broncos that caused the Denver defensive line to naturally space themselves out because they were initially rushing the passer. 

The Patriots will probably also go back to their crack toss play that was successful in their last two games, immediately getting the runner away from the interior defenders. 

Although the Patriots could run on anyone, the power plays and fullback leads will be challenging this week against Denver’s stout front. Misdirection and perimeters runs are critical. 

WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL 

Belichick is 36-1 against first and second-year quarterbacks at home in the regular season; good luck, Drew Lock.

The Broncos’ starter might not scare Patriots fans, but he’s a lot different than Brett Rypien, who would’ve started for Denver last week. 

After studying their season-opener with Lock under center, Broncos offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s play-calling was much more in line with what we’ve seen from him in the past. 

Rypien operated mostly from shotgun against the Jets, lived off of deep shots, and the Broncos seldom used play-action with the former Boise State quarterback. 

In Week 1, Shurmur mixed it up with Lock, who averaged ten air yards per attempt throwing off play-action with motion on top of typical west-coast concepts (slant, crossers, deep curls). 

Shurmur also has an empty formation package that gives Lock defined reads and invites him to use his athleticism to scramble or manipulate coverage. 

Although Shurmur gives Lock enough chances to throw off leverage, Denver’s quarterbacks rank dead-last in expected completion percentage this season. In other words, Lock isn’t attempting very many high-percentage throws.

PASS DEFENSE

The Patriots never overlook opponents, but they won’t necessarily need their complex coverage schemes that we saw against Kansas City to slow down the Broncos. 

Lock is like a young Josh Allen; there are flashes of his arm talent and mobility. But if you force him to stay in the pocket, read the defense, and make accurate throws, he’ll struggle. 

On his 38 pass attempts this season, Lock is only completing 45 percent of his throws when he’s forced to hold onto the football for 2.5 seconds or more. 

Here, the Broncos called a post-wheel combination against cover-one man on third down. The post-safety in the middle of the field makes Lock throw the wheel route to Jeudy up the sideline. Jeudy has a step on his man, and the post-safety has a lot of grass to cover to help, but the throw is nowhere near the intended target. The defense challenges Lock to drop a dime there, and the fact that it sails over everyone is a sign that he doesn’t have that type of accuracy in his toolbox. 

Lock can be dangerous once he extends plays outside the pocket, especially out of empty. 

If the defense is in zone, as is the case above, he’ll use his legs to pull defenders towards him to create openings downfield. It’s natural for defenders to lock onto the quarterback in zone, making easier throws for Lock on the move when they vacate their zones. 

The Patriots defense will need a good scouting report on rookie wide receiver Jerry Jeudy, big-bodied wideout Tim Parker, and tight end Noah Fant (assuming he plays). 

And will certainly confuse Lock with some of their more exotic coverages and pressure schemes to force negative plays. 

But staying disciplined in their rush lanes and avoiding Lock improvising should be enough to shut the Broncos passing attack down. 

RUN DEFENSE 

The Broncos are a heavy zone-rushing team that utilizes outside or inside zone on 40 percent of their runs. 

Denver running back Melvin Gordon is practicing while facing DUI charges from an incident on Tuesday night, and Pro Bowler Phillip Lindsay is expected to return from injury this week.

Before the bye week, the Pats shut down Kansas City’s outside zone runs thanks to fantastic play from Lawrence Guy, Deatrich Wise, and John Simon, among others.

Here are two examples where Wise holds up and attacks the play-side guard with Simon setting a sturdy edge, leading to minimal gains for the Chiefs on the ground. 

New England got a terrific performance out of Wise, Simon, Guy, and the rest of their front against Kansas City against a similar scheme. More of the same should do the trick. 

When the Broncos go to their power runs, attacking pullers from off the line becomes a priority. Denver will try to double New England’s run-stuffers at the point attack, so it’s up to Ja’Whaun Bentley and company to trigger downhill to get those doubles off their teammates. 

Denver’s offense ranks near the bottom of the league in passing (29) and rushing DVOA (21), so the defense should dominate as long as they’re prepared after the long layoff. 

KEY MATCHUPS 

1. Stephon Gilmore vs. Jerry Jeudy: the rookie will likely face the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in his fifth NFL game on Sunday. Jeudy runs 84 percent of his routes out of the slot but is a size mismatch for Jon Jones, and Gilmore travels inside often compared to other shutdown corners. Jeudy is an extremely refined route-runner that incorporates different releases and is extremely quick at the top of his routes. His game reminds me of a young Keenan Allen. With Allen, Gilmore tends to smother him at the line and avoid the top of the route altogether. My guess is that’ll be his approach with Jeudy as well, along with playing off his help in the middle of the field on crossing routes. 

2. Isaiah Wynn vs. Bradley Chubb: another marquee matchup will take place on the blindside, with two former first-rounders. Chubb is a powerful pass-rusher that uses long arms and strong hands to collapse the pocket. He won’t scare you with speed, but he’s a technician that plays to his strengths. Wynn held Chiefs pass-rusher Frank Clark mostly in check last week and will need to bring his heavy anchor and hand usage to the table against Chubb. 

3. Pats Interior OL vs. Shelby Harris/Mike Purcell: Harris jumped off the screen in film review. He has great hand usage and block anticipation against the run and is very good in his initial hand usage as a pass rusher. Purcell is Fangio’s version of Lawrence Guy, although he’s more of a true nose tackle, taking on double-teams and anchoring the run defense. Moving both guys off the ball will be more challenging this week than in their first four games of the season.

4. Julian Edelman vs. Bryce Callahan: Edelman desperately needs a bounce-back performance after a costly drop against KC. The Pats wideout’s drop-rate this season is nearly double his career average. There’s either something physically wrong (knee) or mentally (learning a new quarterback) with the former Super Bowl MVP. Still, you’d expect a gamer like Edelman to figure things out. 

5. Joejuan Williams/Kyle Dugger vs. Noah Fant: Fant wasn’t going to play last week due to an ankle injury, but there’s a better chance he’ll go this week. Although Fant won’t move anyone as a run blocker, he can run and presents a formidable downfield threat. Shurmur likes to use him on vertical routes and crossers to attack leverage while running away from coverage. The Pats tight end stoppers held their own the last two weeks against Travis Kelce and Darren Waller, and they’ll need to do it again this week.