The Vikings' quarterback seemed to regress in his second season. Did that tell us more about the player, or the Minnesota offensive scheme?
21 Sep 2011
by Doug Farrar
"The leader can never close the gap between himself and the group. If he does, he is no longer what he must be. He must walk a tightrope between the consent he must win and the control he must exert." – Vince Lombardi
Through their common experiences growing up in Georgia, Green Bay Packers safety Morgan Burnett has either seen Cam Newton play football, or played against him, at just about every possible level -– Pop Warner, high school, college, and now the NFL. Burnett didn’t see Newton during the quarterback’s season at Blinn Junior College, but if there’s one NFL defender who you’d think would have all the intel needed to solve Newton on the field, it would be the second-year safety out of Georgia Tech.
"You have to stay on your coverage a little bit longer than usual," Burnett said after the game. "You can see the athleticism he has in him, and he has a strong arm. He's a great quarterback."
The obvious perception after Newton’s record-setting debut against the Arizona Cardinals was that Green Bay would confuse Newton with the multiple formations he’d never seen before –- from the 2-4-5 package they run so often and so effectively, to any manner of other tricks in Dom Capers' bag. If Packers head coach Mike McCarthy is the most formation-diverse offensive playcaller in the NFL (and I’ll go ahead and say that he is), defensive coordinator Capers is certainly up there with Rex Ryan and Dick LeBeau on the defensive creative side of the ball. That said, early on the game, the Packers showed a front concept that wouldn’t have looked out of place to Newton if he was going up against USC in the Pete Carroll days -- three down linemen, Clay Matthews in a standup/LEO/Elephant look, and linebacker Erik Walden pressed to the weak side to either rush or cover, depending on the read.
On the Panthers’ first play from scrimmage, Walden rushed from the defensive right side, giving the Packers more of a 5-2 appearance, and the Carolina play call took perfect advantage of that idea. The Panthers line ran slide protection to the left, leading Green Bay’s line the same way, while Newton rolled out right behind a bunch right formation. Jeremy Shockey was at the top of the bunch, and ran a deeper sideline route that put him in a zone pocket while Newton rolled right to make his reads. Matthews dropped into coverage on Shockey, while receiver Legedu Naanee ran a quick up-and-out to occupy Burnett (42) and cornerback Sam Shields (37). It was a relatively simple, but brilliantly designed, play that set a tone for the first quarter. One that allowed Newton to throw for 151 yards in just the first 15 minutes.
I’m not sure if the Packers were expecting the Panthers to run more than they did, or they were worried about what Newton’s mobility would do to them, but they stayed with more down linemen than I expected them to. On the next play, the Pack went with another 5-2 moving safety look, and Newton threw a ball to Shockey on the left sideline that he simply dropped. Green Bay did start to alternate in some two-man fronts through the first drive, but they weren’t blitzing heavily and the absence of cornerback Tramon Williams affected the complexity of the defense, because Charles Woodson had to play more traditional cornerback (coverage over Steve Smith on either side), as opposed to his usual “Joker” role, where he can do anything from basic cornerback to nickel hybrid to A-gap blitzer.
So, it wasn’t the multiple fronts that eventually took Newton down –- the Packers were limited in what they could do without Williams, and even the Packers defenders admitted after the game that Newton had a pretty amazing read on things.
"He's smart, very smart," cornerback Sam Shields said. "He picked the right reads and got the ball there. If there was nothing open, he ran it. He's not a rookie that will come in and just force the ball in there."
So, what happened on the two Woodson picks, and the one that Burnett racked up later in the game? If Green Bay’s defense wasn’t serving Newton a crash course in brain surgery, how is it that a guy who threw for 582 yards, three touchdowns, and just one interception in his first five NFL quarters could fall apart so soon after?
The first pick came with 3:11 left in the first half, and this was against the front he had seen before -– a 5-2 look with some moving parts at the line. Woodson was one-on-one with Smith and Burnett was playing from a slot base with a single-high concept. Nothing unconventional there, and nothing Newton hadn’t beaten earlier in the game. The Panthers were looking run (power strong side right, single receiver, single-back), so Shields was pinching the strong side edge about five yards back to read the moving tight end.
At the snap, Newton ran decent play action, telegraphed his one long read (Smith on the left side), and threw an ill-advised pass into double coverage as Woodson and Nick Collins converged on the ball. It was a bit like the Tony Romo interception to Darrelle Revis in the Week 1 Jets-Cowboys game in that Woodson laid off just enough to make Newton think that he had the room to make the sideline throw. But Woodson was emboldened (embiggened?) by Collins coming over up top, just as Revis could jump Dez Bryant’s route because safety Brodney Pool had his back on the downfield stuff.
The second half began with a Green Bay possession and touchdown, then a Panthers handoff to DeAngelo Williams, and then Newton’s second pick with 11:30 left in the third quarter. Yes, he threw two picks with two consecutive throws; it’s just that the throws were about an hour apart. Not good. This pick came against the 2-4-5, with Jarrett Bush as the nickel corner. The Panthers went shotgun, four-wide, empty backfield with Shockey inline right and Williams split wide left. The nickel coverage allowed the Packers to play a three-on-three with Shockey (covered by Bush), Smith (Woodson), and Shields outside covering the second tight end. A.J. Hawk dropped outside to cover Williams, and Woodson was on Smith inside.
The Panthers were going for a clearout idea in which the left side of the defense would be taken up with the receiver distribution. However, Woodson did a ridiculously great job of covering Smith on a shallow cross that ran to Woodson’s left, which took away Newton’s first read. As Smith crossed over, Newton had to hesitate while he waited for Smith to get free. Woodson saw this, stayed right at Smith’s hip, and waited for Newton to make a really weird throw.
Which, of course, is exactly when Newton did. He broke through some chaff up front, rolled right, and executed a jump pass to Smith that Woodson easily jumped for his second pick. Newton didn’t seem to think he had room to throw over the oncoming Matthews without the jump, but that maneuver slowed him up and took away his primary asset -– driving through the throw with the kind of velocity that would have put the ball in the hands of the right guy. At some point, Newton will learn that when you’re playing checkers and the opposing defense has moved on to chess, best to throw the ball away.
Then, with 5:26 left in the third quarter, the third pick occurred. This time, the defense was a combination of the things Newton had seen through the day. Two down linemen and two linebackers, nickel defense with Bush as the fifth defensive back, and Woodson straight on Smith. The Panthers ran three-wide, single-back shotgun, with Greg Olsen as the flex receiver to the right. Linebacker Desmond Bishop came down to cover Olsen (which allowed Matthews to plant and rush from the strong side), while the Packers ran the same three-man coverage combo to that same side –- Shields outside, Bush inside, and Burnett over the top. Naanee ran a great stutter-step on Bush upfield and had his man beat, but there was obviously some confusion on this play, because Newton overthrew Naanee by about 10 yards, right to Burnett, who was playing off just in case the corners couldn’t catch up.
Burnett looked especially pleased with the gift, and Newton walked off the field with an expression which intimated that the play in his head and the one on the playbook were not quite the same. Naanee was in a perfect little zone pocket, and Newton just sailed one. Regrettably, there was no insight from the booth, because Jim Mora (the Younger, not the good and funny one) took this opportunity to tell the Panthers 37 times in 60 seconds that they needed to run the ball more. In verbiage Mora the Younger would probably understand, I’d say that Naanee zigged when Newton expected him to zag. Hey, stuff happens.
And so it goes. Beyond the vagaries of one game, Newton’s performance against the Packers impressed me in different ways than his debut did. It’s clear that his brain doesn’t melt when he’s faced with different formations up front, and while he caught a major break with Tramon Williams on the sideline, he also showed at times that he can and will read coverages correctly. For that reason, I’m not as alarmed when he reverts or loses his way –- it’s pretty clear that everything is still coming together for Newton, but in a very good way. He was also schooled by one of the best defensive players in the last decade in Woodson, and the good news for Newton is that he next faces the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have nobody remotely resembling Woodson in their defensive backfield.
"You’s a corn-fed fool with a lot of muscle mass ... but it’s time for Bullhorn to get up in that ass!" – Byron Minns, “Black Dynamite”
Offensive line continuity is one of those nebulous concepts that one can use to forward different kinds of arguments. It's an easy sell, because it makes sense -- you're better off with linemen who have worked together, because you're trying to execute a combination of base violence and complicated line dancing on most plays. Data sets don't really reveal much when trying to prove or disprove this hypothesis (though some will try when the results don't favor their teams in ways they'd prefer), you really have to look at tape and try to have a basic idea of what people are supposed to be doing before you can start picking it apart. "Well, this guy was out of place because he's never executed this line call before!" While there's no question that Ben Muth could speak to this much better than I (or most anybody else) could ... well, sometimes, it isn't hard to figure out why you're getting your butt kicked.
This year, the Seattle Seahawks have the youngest line in the NFL -- second-year left tackle Russell Okung, third-year center Max Unger (who missed his second season with a foot injury), and two rookies on the right side -- right guard John Moffitt and right tackle James Carpenter. Now that free agent pickup left guard Robert Gallery is out 4-6 weeks with a groin injury, that line is going to show even more inexperience. Projected fill-in Paul McQuistan may be a placeholder for another mystery move as the Seahawks take their personnel roller-coaster into overdrive for the second straight season. McQuistan hasn't started a regular-season game since 2007, and he's the 13th different left guard to start for the Seahawks since the whole Steve Hutchinson debacle in 2006.
When the Seahawks traveled to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers, I expected that line to get owned against Dick LeBeau’s defense, but two things stood out in a negative way -- even though I already had lowered expectations. First, by bringing on Tom Cable to run the line and drafting Moffitt and Carpenter as "power guys," the Seahawks were making a commitment to the kind of power zone systems that teams like the Falcons and Titans run effectively. But with all that mass up front, Seattle could get no leverage at the point of attack. None. It was embarrassing, and I asked Pete Carroll about it on Monday –- when you set things up for a power line and there’s no power, how do you change that?
"That’s a good question. You do it through repetition and teaching and learning on their part so that they can understand how they can technically get better and physically play to the style. Our guys can do what we’re asking them to do. They’ve done it at times and we can see it. We need to find the consistency and that just comes from repetitions ... just keep going, keep working and sticking with it. So it’s a matter of time. We’re not asking these guys to do things that they’re not capable of because we picked them exactly to be the guys that were going to help us. It’s just taking us more time than we would have liked, so we’re still talking about it."
Something else the Seahawks are undoubtedly talking about as a teaching point happened with 13:48 left in the third quarter of that shutout loss. Pittsburgh had a two-man front and brought linebacker Lawrence Timmons to the weak side, head-up over Moffitt at right guard. Pittsburgh then waited until the last second to throw a fire zone blitz, with two more defenders shooting through inside. A more experienced line might have picked that and slid left to take the overload, and most of the line did. Unger and Gallery blocked left, and blocking back Justin Forsett came up to fill the left B-gap area along with Gallery.
The zone blitz part of the play came from Timmons, who hesitated before dropping back, which put Moffitt on point and delayed his response. As a result of that, Aaron Smith was able to give Moffitt one quick swim move and blow right by, while Moffitt stood there in a basic zone protection, wondering what just happened. The result? A pressure on Tarvaris Jackson that had the quarterback throwing a high ball to receiver Doug Baldwin, which opened Baldwin up for a rib shot.
That’s not to single out Moffitt –- he’s a tough guy who started a lot of games in a great line at Wisconsin, and though I saw him get bulled back far too often at the Senior Bowl and occasionally on tape, it’s clear that the Seahawks are high on him. But the Seahawks have had these little disasters through the short season, and they’re going to have to keep redefining their offense at an amoebic level until everyone gets on the same page.
21 comments, Last at 22 Sep 2011, 9:45pm by milo