Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels wasted no time in ushering in a brand new offense to fit their new personnel. With Cam Newton under center, New England sported a relentless and versatile running game. They finished the day with 217 yards and 3 touchdowns on the ground. They averaged 5.2 yards per carry and possessed the ball for almost 35 minutes. This enabled them to control the game in a way that has to make a defensive-minded coach like Belichick feel warm and fuzzy inside.
Cam Newton is at his best when he’s a dual threat, and McDaniels made sure to put him to work in this one. Newton finished with 15 carries for only the second time in his career. The Patriots used an assortment of designed runs for Newton, including sweeps, powers, and power read-options. You could see the effect of the read-option on defenders on Newton’s very first carry. Watch Kyle Van Noy (#53) on the right side of the screen hesitate for an instant and take a step with Rex Burkhead.
The read-option play concept makes it difficult for defenders to always stay in their gaps. And if the correct read is made by the quarterback, the offense can almost always get a numbers advantage. Defenders get put into conflict on these types of plays, and if they choose to stick with the quarterback, holes get opened up elsewhere. This was the case throughout the day for Miami as it tried to deal with Newton. The below 15-yard run by Burkhead is a great example. Keep your eyes on Shaq Lawson (#90) and Jerome Baker (#55) as they both went with Newton inside.
Everything we saw on Sunday in Foxborough was based off of the run and the threat of Newton’s legs. New England used a ton of play-action when they did throw the ball, and this opened up enough throwing lanes to make the passing game effective.
While the quarterback and his skillset might be different in New England, some things don’t change. As they like to do, the Patriots used personnel packages, alignments, and motion that put pressure on the defense to communicate well on the fly in order to execute. Cam Newton’s second touchdown was a great example of this.
First, look how the Patriots initially aligned Burkhead and tight end Ryan Izzo on the outside to the right. The Dolphins matched up with linebacker Jerome Baker and safety Eric Rowe. This was an indicator of man coverage to that side. To the other side of the formation, the Dolphins were also in a man-coverage look with Julian Edelman getting double-teamed by the free safety. This left linebacker Elandon Roberts to account for Newton.
When Burkhead motioned into the backfield, Baker followed.
However, Burkhead crossed the center while taking the play-fake from Newton and then released to the flat on the other side of the formation. He became the responsibility of Roberts, which meant Baker was then accountable for Newton.
But Baker took a few too many false steps in Burkhead’s direction, and that gave Newton just enough room to get to the end zone. Watch the play from start to finish, keeping an eye on Baker and Roberts communicating in response to the motion.
On paper, the Dolphins seemed to have things accounted for here. But this is what motion does. It makes defenses have to juggle, change, and communicate responsibilities on the fly and then execute. Maybe Baker didn’t trust Roberts would actually take Burkhead, so he took a few false steps. Maybe he panicked for a split-second in all the chaos and that caused him to overreact when he saw the play-fake. Either way, this is the type of approach that has made the Patriots so tough to defend for years, no matter who is playing quarterback. McDaniels and Belichick constantly put mental strain on opponents, making certain basic play concepts more complicated and difficult to counter.
Cam Newton wasn’t perfect on Sunday by any means. On the first of two sacks, he stuck with the called play against a bad look. On the second sack, he had time to throw the ball at his running back’s feet instead of taking the sack and knocking the Patriots out of field goal range. He also repeatedly ran the ball into absolutely jam-packed boxes instead of changing the play at the line.
As the season progresses, I expect Newton to get more comfortable. And I anticipate that the Patriots will add a few new wrinkles to help him respond better when defenses load up the box. For his first game with a new team, though, you really couldn’t ask for a better debut out of Newton.
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