With Cam Newton as the main ingredient and a dash of 2019 Ravens, Patriots are cooking up something special

For the past decade or so, the New England Patriots offense essentially did not exist. At least not in the way, say, Andy Reid’s offense or Kyle Shanahan’s offense or Sean McVay’s offense exists. The Patriots did not necessarily have a system so much as they had a set of principles and a group of players who were consistently asked to perform a specific set of duties. James White would catch passes out of the backfield on swing routes and arrow routes. Julian Edelman would run quick outs and options. Sony Michel would run power. Rob Gronkowski would stretch the field up the seam and emerge behind a linebacker and in front of a safety in the play-action game. 

But from week to week, New England’s offense might look completely different. They were liable to come out in a spread formation and throw the ball 40 times one week, then go all-in on jumbo formations and run it 40 times the next. (Or the reverse: run it out of the spread and throw it out of heavy packages.) They were a game-plan offense, basing their attack around their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. 

In the first week of the Cam Newton era, all that went out the window. This offense was all about Cam Newton, all the time. If you took the Tom Brady play-action package and dropped it into the 2019 Baltimore Ravens playbook, this is what you’d get. 

New England ran a league-high 11 read-option plays in Week 1, per Pro Football Focus. To put that number in perspective, consider this: They ran a grand total of 16 such plays from 2013 to 2019. That was last in the NFL. Every other team in the league ran at least 49 of them.

We knew that Newton’s ability to make plays with his legs would add a new dimension to the Patriots offense, but I don’t think we necessarily knew that specific skill would become the entire basis of the offense in the way it did on Sunday. Cam made plays on his own, of course, but the respect the Dolphins‘ edge rushers and interior defenders had to pay to his ability to do so also created openings for guys like Rex Burkhead to break into the open field.

The advantage this provided the Patriots was felt most acutely in short-yardage situations. Specifically, it showed up on their second-quarter scoring drive where they ran a QB draw on third-and-5, a read-option sweep on second-and-4 in the red zone, and then QB power for a touchdown after motioning the back out of the backfield in order to clear the entire ride side of the line for Cam to find a seam and burst into the end zone.

The benefit of Newton’s skill set was obvious in the performance the Patriots got from their running backs. Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels have always preferred a committee approach, but they took it to a different level in Week 1. White, Burkhead, and Michel each played 19 snaps. 5-foot-5 undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor played nine and fullback Jakob Johnson played 21. The touches were divvied up fairly equally, with White getting five carries and three catches, Burkhead seven carries, Michel 10 carries, and Taylor four carries and a reception. On 30 touches, that group totaled 153 yards despite its longest play gaining only 15. They just kept ripping off solid chunks. 

All of those various runs and reads helped set up the play-action game, which actually looked like it was straight out of the typical New England playbook, for the most part. Newton reverse-pivoting out from under center, faking a power hand-off, then spotting his tight end (Ryan Izzo) or Edelman in the space between the linebackers and safeties. 

Newton faked a run on 11 of his 22 drop backs, per Pro Football Focus, for a 50 percent play-action rate that was the highest in the NFL in Week 1. And while some of those throws looked like the ones above, there were also plenty that looked like they could have been lifted from the 2019 Ravens playbook. Run-pass option plays, quick-hitting bubble screens, etc. 

Cam got rid of the ball VERY quickly in this game, taking an average of 2.36 seconds to throw. That was third-fastest in the league. (That strategy also had the benefit of keeping Cam clean for the majority of the game. He was pressured on only four of 22 drop backs.) Getting the ball out quickly and allowing guys like White, Edelman, and N’Keal Harry to run after the catch, with blocking in front of them, proved an effective strategy. 

The Patriots also utilized pre-snap motion at the 10th-highest rate in the league in Week 1, putting a man on the move on 51.6 percent of their snaps. That allowed Newton to quickly diagnose coverages and identify the man who would be open soonest after the snap. 

They also utilized a diverse array of formations: they were in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) on only 44 percent of their snaps, making them one of just eight times that used 11 less than half the time in Week 1. They were in 21 (two backs, one tight end) on 31 percent of their snaps, 12 (one back, two tight ends) on 15 percent, and 22 (two backs, two tight ends) and 10 (one back, zero tight ends) five percent of the time each. That’s a pretty good way to keep defenses off-balance. 

As the Patriots move through the rest of the season, we should still expect them to tailor game-plans to their opponents’ specific strengths and weaknesses, but also to dictate the attack in the ways that best suit Newton’s skill set. Heavy doses of option runs, RPO plays, quick throws, multiple backs, multiple formations… all of these things should be there in spades. And if the way they worked in Week 1 is any indication, so should a great degree of success. 

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