Cam Newton is one of the most unique quarterbacks we have ever seen in the NFL. Between his arm strength, his athleticism, and his ability to run power into the teeth of a defense like a running back, he has talent that is unrivaled at the quarterback position. Yet it is well known among NFL defensive coaches that the more you make him have to be a precise quarterback, the less successful he is. Denver did just that in Week 6, especially in critical moments.
Broncos Head Coach Vic Fangio had Newton out of rhythm and uncomfortable all day. This wasn’t more evident than on the final 4-play sequence of the game with New England threatening to take the lead. On all four plays, Fangio used post-snap movement in coverage and dialed up the pressure. The results were a microcosm of how to beat Cam Newton.
This was 1st-and-10 from Denver’s 24-yard line with just over a minute to go. Watch Julian Edelman break wide open from the left slot. Newton missed him, though.
Look, misfires happen. Sometimes the ball comes out of a quarterback’s hand funny, and maybe that’s what happened here. But it looked like Cam rushed this throw and that caused the misfire. The reason he rushed it seemed to be due to his footwork on his drop. He drifted back and was late to set up and throw. It wasn’t egregious, but it also wasn’t precise, and that ultimately killed the play. You think Tom Brady misses that throw?
Okay, okay. Maybe that’s not a fair comparison to make. The next play, however, was even worse. Focus on Damiere Byrd’s skinny post coming from the stack to the left.
Once again, Newton had an open receiver. Byrd walks in for a touchdown if Newton throws that ball. But he didn’t and he ended up taking a sack instead. Why did this happen? Because Newton’s footwork was, once again, imprecise. He took a couple of extra hop steps before starting his throwing motion, and this made the backside safety become a factor.
You can see that Newton pulled the ball down at the last second because he saw that backside safety creeping into the middle of the field. But had Newton gotten rid of the ball on time off of Byrd’s break, the Patriots likely score the go-ahead touchdown.
Below, you can see where the backside safety was right at the top of Byrd’s stem, which was when Newton should have thrown the ball.
That’s wide open.
This play is a great example of why the ability to anticipate is so important for quarterbacks. With Newton, whether it’s the footwork delaying his ability to anticipate or his inability to anticipate making precise footwork seem unnecessary, this has always been an area of his game that has been inconsistent.
Being ready and in position to get rid of the ball is a key component of throwing with anticipation. Quickly deciphering the coverage is another important aspect of anticipation throws. To his credit, Vic Fangio did not make that easy for Newton, as he used disguise and movement after the snap to delay his decision making. We know from watching Cam throughout his career that you can get him off his game with disguised coverages that make him second-guess what he is seeing, hesitate, and pull the ball down. That’s also what seemed to happen here.
Mistakes aside, the Patriots still had a chance two plays later on 4th-and-10. The Broncos once again started in that split-safety quarters coverage look that defines a Vic Fangio defense.
Once again, they moved post snap and brought pressure. This time they ended up playing Cover-0 (no deep safety) and bringing the house. Fangio left his cornerbacks on an island. He was basically saying “I don’t think Cam and the Patriots’ receivers can beat us.”
Focus on the N’Keal Harry vs. De’Vante Bausby matchup.
With the game on the line, that was a bad miss to what looked to be an open receiver. Newton clearly felt the pressure and tried to anticipate the throw, as he said after the game: “I knew I was going to get hit. So I just tried to find a spot to give him, so he could make a play on it. There was a defender on the interior part stealing the field, so I still tried to give him an opportunity. So that’s what it came down to.” That line of thinking isn’t wrong. But the throw to the outside shouldn’t have been 5-8 yards to the outside. It should be to the outside shoulder.
Newton misfired wildly because he is not, and has never been, a great anticipation thrower.
Despite Newton’s improvements from the pocket in recent years, he is still inconsistent due to this lack of precision to his game. You can get away with that at times as a quarterback. But in those key moments where defenses dial up more disguises and blitz pressure, the small details of playing the position (footwork, mechanics, timing, ball placement, etc.) matter more. Newton doesn’t always exhibit these. In Week 6, it resulted in a lackluster offensive performance.
The AFC East division title is still attainable for the Patriots. There is a lot of season left to play. The Bills Defense, which was a key differentiator for them a year ago, has been surprisingly disappointing. And this makes them vulnerable. While the Patriots Defense isn’t as good as it was a year ago, the secondary is still one of the best in the league. Let’s also not forget that New England is two plays away from being 4-1 right now.
Still, the Patriots need Cam Newton and the offense to be better if they are seriously going to contend in the AFC. The workarounds for Newton’s shortcomings exist in New England’s offense, and I have no doubt Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels will find ways to continue to put him in position to succeed. However, this is what you get with Newton – inconsistency. Sometimes, that is due to his abilities and sometimes defenses can force it out of him. If New England can’t find a way to minimize his weaknesses, they won’t be playing deep into January.
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