It’s fun now to look back and remember fondly those bizarre few days that the Patriots tried to convince us there was an actual competition for the team’s starting quarterback job. Cam Newton―who put an end to that always dubious story line posthaste―looked a lot like his onetime MVP-winning self in his debut for New England on Sunday, utilizing both his arm and his legs to lead the Pats to a 21-11 win against the Dolphins.
Newton provided a clear look at the team’s plan for him by carrying the ball on designed runs early and often. New England didn’t try to limit Newton to the role of a traditional dropback passer, and the three-time Pro Bowler finished the game with 15 rushing attempts―a game high for him dating back to 2015―netting 75 yards and two touchdowns on the day. He also distributed the ball efficiently down the field, finishing 15-of-19 for 155 yards through the air.
The game plan was refreshingly sound. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and head coach Bill Belichick did exactly what any great coach would do by employing a scheme that best fits their quarterback’s skill set. In this case, they simply let Cam be Cam. So what did that mean in Week 1—and what can we expect from this offense for the rest of the year? Here’s a quick breakdown of the new-look offense that Newton and the Patriots unveiled on Sunday.
The Option-Run Game
Patriots fans haven’t gotten a chance to watch a mobile quarterback at the helm of their team’s offense in decades. Tom Brady will go down as the greatest QB-sneak artist in NFL history, but let’s be honest, describing his outside-the-pocket gait as “trundling” would be generous. That’s not the case with Newton, 31, who shook off offseason foot surgery to compile 75 rushing yards, a sea change in style for this team and the highest rushing total for any Patriots quarterback since 1977.
Newton’s combination of size, explosiveness, and power as a runner gives McDaniels the opportunity to add a whole new chapter to the team’s playbook. And the always innovative play-caller showed little restraint in dialing up designed QB-keeper option-run plays. The team’s repertoire of quarterback-centric runs included standard-fare zone reads, like this one from the first quarter. Newton reads the backside defensive end, and when that defender cheats to the inside to position himself to take on the running back, Newton keeps it and runs it himself.
And in the fourth quarter, McDaniels called a classic pitch play. Newton takes the snap, runs to his right, and when the defensive end to the playside commits to him as a ball carrier, he pitches it out to James White, who has some open green in front of him. White picks up 7 yards.
None of those option runs were particularly extraordinary, but Newton presents a real threat to run it and also knows how to execute the timing of the plays to force defenders into wrong decisions, so they all worked like a charm against a frustrated Dolphins defense.
Lots and Lots of Motion
While an option-based run game is perplexing enough on its own, the Patriots decided to make things even tougher for the Miami defense and sprinkled in the element of misdirection. In Week 1, only the Rams used motion at the snap at a higher rate than New England―a strategy that I expect teams facing the Pats will have to deal with all season long. Let’s take a look at a few examples for why it was so effective.
On this play early in the game, New England comes out in a two-running-back set. After initially lining up as a sort of wingback to the left, White sprints across the formation just before the snap. Watch what that motion does to the defense:
It’s another inverted veer play, and in addition to one linebacker running with White toward the sideline, the subsequent option fake (to the right) coaxes both second-level defenders up to their left and toward the line of scrimmage. That gives Newton a little more room to run: He keeps it and sprints straight up the field, right into that recently vacated area of the defense, and drags a defender about 12 yards.
On this next play, the presnap motion has a similar effect. New England spreads the field out with a four-receiver set. White takes off toward the sideline just prior to the snap, carrying a defender with him. The effect of that simple strategic choice is that now, instead of having to take on that fifth guy at the line of scrimmage, Newton is running against a four-man front. With five blockers in front, the Patriots have a clear numerical advantage. The big quarterback easily picks up the first down.
The same basic principles applied on Newton’s second-quarter touchdown run. Motion lures a defender away to the offensive left, giving New England the ability to block four-on-four (center, right guard, right tackle, and wide receiver) against the Dolphins defenders to the right.
On Newton’s other rushing touchdown, a naked bootleg early in the third quarter, watch how Rex Burkhead’s presnap movement from right to left pulls two Dolphins linebackers out of position and helps give Newton a clearer runway to the front corner of the end zone.
The Play-Action Passing Attack
The Patriots’ heavy use of both option runs and presnap motion was a dream come true for football nerds like me, whose main goal in life is to somehow convince teams to utilize more deception in their offenses. New England brought some schematic deceit to its passing game, too, I’m pleased to announce, dialing up good old-fashioned play-action fakes on a league-high 50 percent of Newton’s pass attempts.
Combining a physical, unrelenting rushing attack with an aggressive plan for passing off of play-action allowed Newton to find open receivers downfield. The veteran QB completed eight of his nine play-action pass attempts in the game, per Pro Football Focus.
Newton totaled 99 yards on play-action passes and averaged 11 yards per attempt, sixth best among the league’s passers last week (minimum five attempts). Overall, Newton passed the ball efficiently across the board against the Dolphins, and didn’t throw a single unforced inaccurate pass. His four incompletions included two throwaways and two passes batted at the line.
Everything the Patriots did on offense was designed to help Cam hit the ground running, both literally and figuratively. By mixing a familiar run game with some schematic tweaks to help get the defense out of position and get more guys open downfield, the Patriots did an excellent job of making things easier for Newton following the truncated offseason. The Patriots even deviated from their normal methodology when it came to the type of cadence their quarterbacks utilize, as The Athletic’s Nate Tice noted.
But the obvious question after such an intriguing start is what this offense will look like in Week 2. The Bobby Wagner and Jamal Adams–led Seahawks defense presents an entirely new set of challenges for the Patriots. Pete Carroll has plenty of experience scheming up ways to try to slow Newton down―his team faced Newton’s Panthers eight times in the regular season and postseason from 2012 to 2019―but as Carroll noted this week, Seattle has no real idea of what to expect. “We don’t know what they’re going to do with him,” Carroll said of Newton’s Patriots on Wednesday. “It’s only one game … They’ve been notorious for changing from one week to the next in how they approach their opponents. We have to go into this game with a wide-open look.”
Whether Belichick and Co. plan to unleash Newton for 20-plus quarterback-keeper runs or shift to an all-out aerial attack, the Patriots-Seahawks tilt on Sunday Night Football is a must-watch affair. In any case, early signs for a Cam Newton resurgence in New England are incredibly positive, and I can’t wait to see what the Patriots have cooking for the rest of the year.
An earlier version of this piece mistakenly said that Pete Carroll faced Cam Newton’s Panthers eight times in the postseason; the line has been corrected to say that Carroll faced Newton’s Panthers eight times in the postseason and regular season combined.