Any Given Sunday
The weekend's biggest upset goes under the Football Outsiders lens.

Any Given Sunday: Broncos over Patriots

New England Patriots QB Cam Newton
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

The Cam Newton Patriots are a little like a small college team that somehow lucked into a generational quarterback on the recruiting trail. OK, it's great that you have a good quarterback -- but what have you surrounded him with otherwise and how do you make that work?

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has installed a run-heavy offense with an emphasis on Newton's abilities as a rusher. While it hasn't been perfect, it has made the Patriots a tough out as an offense as long as they can rely on opponents having to take the run seriously. The problem in this game, naturally, was that the Broncos didn't have to take to the run seriously as their field-goal counter continued to inch up. The Patriots were also put into wildly disadvantageous situations thanks to a couple of major negative plays while they were driving. Newton took a sack on second-and-9 at the Denver 39 that forced the Patriots into a punt. A flubbed snap over Newton's head on the next drive created a second-and-25 at the Denver 34. Down 18-9 with the ball deep in Denver territory after a turnover, Newton took another sack to create second-and-15 and force another field goal. Add on a fumble in the open field and two tipped interceptions.

The problem is just that Newton doesn't really have a lot of help around him when the team has to pass:

This is that second-and-9 sack I mentioned above: a max protect scheme with Newton trying to get the ball to one of just two receivers downfield, each of whom are single-covered deep. The back is blocking and the two tight ends are blocking and then releasing. Josey Jewell (47) comes on a rush and just whips rookie tackle Justin Herron (75) to the point that when N'Keal Harry actually breaks open deep, Newton has no real throwing angle. Jewell throws his hand up to further disrupt the lane, as do a few other Broncos. By the time Newton is able to reset and get Harry later in the route, he has been taken down by the rushers that the tight ends originally picked up.

Harry may have been able to cut this route shorter or use the defensive back's leverage better to help his quarterback out if he'd suspected there was danger with it or that he could just pick up some cheaper yards. He didn't. The Pats are depleted at both receiver and offensive line. The virus and injuries have taken their toll on the line, with only Joe Thuney and Isaiah Wynn currently playing from among the projected starters. David Andrews is back on IR after surgery on his snapping hand. Marcus Cannon opted out before the season. Shaq Mason missed the game on the COVID-19 list. Meanwhile, the Patriots just never fixed the wide receiver position. Damiere Byrd -- someone with 44 career receptions prior to this season -- has played 93% of the snaps. Julian Edelman is getting load-managed. Harry played 89% of the offensive snaps in this game and was targeted twice, catching neither ball. Not only has this team not replaced Rob Gronkowski, they haven't even replaced what Antonio Brown was supposed to be for them. The Mohamed Sanu trade was a disaster and the Harry selection is trending towards going right up there with former Belichick draft flubs such as Chad Jackson.

What happened at the end of this game is that the Patriots had the ball down six with a chance to drive and score. These are three of the plays they ran on that drive:

  • Lateral to Julian Edelman, who threw back across the field to James White for 22 yards.
  • Screen to James White on second-and-10 for 6 yards -- with 2:09 left in the game.
  • Second-and-13, 1:27 left, double-reverse pass from Edelman to Cam Newton for 16 yards.

Now, in and of themselves, trick plays are great and it was fun to watch. When an offense's two-minute drill drive is made up of trick plays? That's a team that flat-out doesn't trust its passing game. Some of it is the players around Newton, for sure. Some of it is also Newton's chemistry with those players.

They'll get Mason back, but the Patriots are liable to be game-scripted pretty hard going forward. To the extent that any team with Cam Newton is operating with moxie, that's kind of the design of the offense by necessity right now. There's a lot going against them getting a real passing game going.

Where the Game Swung

Chart 1

Where the Game Swung
Event Time DEN GWC
Before
DEN GWC
After
Swing
C.Newton incomplete 4th down 1:03 Q4 80.7% 100.0% +19.3%
D.Lock pick by J.Jones 3:14 Q4 85.8% 70.9% -14.9%
D.Lock pick by J.Jackson 5:15 Q4 95.9% 81.0% -14.9%
C.Newton sacked on 2nd down 1:14 Q4 63.0% 75.7% +12.7%
C.Newton interception No. 1 9:38 Q1 35.5% 47.7% +12.2%
D.Lock converts third-and-21 to T.Patrick 9:52 Q3 70.3% 80.1% +9.8%
D.Lock to A.Okwuegbunam on third-and-8 13:35 Q2 54.6% 63.7% +9.1%
R.Izzo fumble 2:08 Q3 83.2% 91.9% +8.7%

The Broncos just sort of steadily built a real lead in this game and nothing really started unraveling until the end of the fourth quarter. There wasn't a huge swing on any one particular non-turnover, with the biggest play being a third-and-21 that converted on a sideline gap throw to Tim Patrick.

By the (D)VOA

DVOA OFF DEF ST TOT
DEN -27.5% -52.5% 14.4% 39.4%
NE -62.7% -18.8% 11.8% -32.2%
VOA OFF DEF ST TOT
DEN -31.2% -60.5% 14.4% 43.7%
NE -69.6% -28.1% 11.8% -29.8%

If you ever wondered what the might of six field goals would look like, well, here you go. Great special teams game for the Broncos and it was enough to overcome a ghastly offensive game.

A Dearth of Caution: The Drew Lock story so far

One of the hot mean-nothing phrases of our COVID lives is "an abundance of caution" -- it doesn't really convey anything that "in the interest of caution" wouldn't, but because the word "abundance" sneaks in, it somehow winds up appeasing the idea that COVID isn't all that important. There have been several NFL "abundance of caution" notices so far.

Drew Lock? Drew Lock doesn't know what that's about. He's here to take chances on literally every throw he can. It's how he fit in that 35-yarder to Patrick.

The Pats play with two deep safeties and a third defensive back stalking the middle of the field with one-on-ones on all three receivers on the line. I don't want to say that it's a bad decision to take this throw -- Lock hits it and it's an important part of his playing personality. It's certainly the only way you're converting a down-and-distance situation like this. But I rarely see throws in this area in today's NFL because if it's not dead-on perfect, Lock is going to put the ball in harm's way. He wound up doing just that later in the game on his last non-kneeldown drive.

It's first-and-10 here. There's pressure coming up the middle. You can drain a lot of the clock up. The intended target is well-covered. This one you've gotta eat if you can't find a checkdown.

The worst part about this season for the Broncos is that it almost feels like we can write-off on any kind of notion that we settled on what Lock is. He has played just two games. The receiving corps that was supposed to be newly fitted to help him succeed and serve as his litmus test is largely not healthy. You can tell he has chemistry with Patrick and that's the guy he mostly spent this game targeting. That's about it. The Broncos are in wait-and-see mode, which means they are more patient than Lock's on-field persona as a general rule. Does this buy him another year? It probably depends on him playing a lot better than he did against the Patriots. This isn't the same Patriots defense it was last year, which makes this a lot more accurate of a litmus test than the turnover-heavy persona would indicate.

The Broncos have largely figured out defense, as you'd expect from Vic Fangio. They have had a negative offensive DVOA in every game they've played this season. Lock has six turnovers (four fumbles, two interceptions) in three games and that would probably be higher had he played a full game against the Steelers. The offensive line seems to be playing better than they did last year. There are a lot of elements of a good offense here long-term, but through two-and-change games of Lock, there's little sign that he'll be pulling those elements together into something functional.

Out of an abundance of caution, we'd say that Denver might want to be making plans to move on from yet another John Elway high-round quarterback.

Comments

26 comments, Last at 22 Oct 2020, 5:25pm

1 The Patriots are not going…

The Patriots are not going anywhere until they force defenses to have to cover the field past fifteen yards.  I still can't believe an NFL mind like Bill Belichick is happy to stack his team with receivers who all work in the 5-12 yard range.

As to this specific game, I felt like Belichick quit early in the 4th quarter, when down by 15 the Patriots went run, run, run, don't challenge an obvious bad spot which would have resulted in a first down, punt.  When the defense got those interceptions late, I'll bet he wished he had that series back.

I also wonder if his bout with Covid left Cam with diminished lung function.  There were virtually no designed runs called for him, and he looked winded for most of the game. 

2 Why?

Why Pick this game?  Dumping on NWE is fine, but there was literally nothing in the “analysis” other than their offense has Newton and nothing else. KC RUNNING over Buffalo or TB stomping the undefeated Packers or IND coming back from a big deficit would all have provided opportunities for informed commentary.

6 Two of those weren't upsets,…

In reply to by Raiderfan

Two of those weren't upsets, and the third one had the Packers as a slight favorite. This was easily the biggest upset given the lines. Also, IND coming back from a big deficit would usually be covered in Clutch Encounters, but they got rid of that column this year.

3 The Cam Newton Patriots are…

The Cam Newton Patriots are a little like a small college team that somehow lucked into a generational quarterback on the recruiting trail.

More like one who got a grad transfer coming off a season-ending injury who left due to a combination of academic issues and a lot of turnover on the coaching staff of his old school.

Like a Nick Starkel.

4 It's interesting that Newton…

It's interesting that Newton is suffering from the exact same issues plaguing Carson Wentz, except to a lesser degree, but no one here is complaining about what's wrong with Newton like they are with Wentz.

Hell, it's worse w/ Wentz, because he's trying to keep pace with a lesser defense.

5 "The Cam Newton Patriots are…

"The Cam Newton Patriots are a little like a small college team that somehow lucked into a generational quarterback on the recruiting trail. OK, it's great that you have a good quarterback -- but what have you surrounded him with otherwise and how do you make that work?"

 

Cam Newton hasn't ranked higher than 21st in passing DVOA in any season since 2015. He adds value as a runner, but there doesn't seem to be much statistical evidence that's he's actually a good QB.

8 To agree with you and others…

To agree with you and others, there is absolutely zero reason you could possibly say that Cam Newton is a "generational quarterback." Best of his generation? It's so hilariously false that it borders on satire. Like if you were trying to make fun of Cam Newton you might call him a generational quarterback. Yeah he's right up there with other generational quarterbacks like Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco.

Cam Newton has shown that he is a great running QB, who has one year of top 5 passing and a long career of mediocrity. To the eye test he just flat out is not an accurate quarterback, and while I am not qualified to really break down the all-22 and figure out how well he reads the defenses, he's not exactly Tom Brady. 

His closest existing comparison is as a Carson Wentz but slightly better at running for being slightly worse at throwing.

11 This.

I predicted the Pats would be about .500, maybe worse.  Cam Newton is not a game changer at this stage of his career.  

There's nothing about the Patriots that's interesting or exciting.  When they end up 7-9, we can talk about the fact that Belichick probably let his ego control the Tom Brady divorce.

 

7 Reciever drops?

The talk in Denver Sports Radio and on PFF was that Lock would have looked a lot better (statistically) if he hadn't had some key drops. Thoughts?

9 Yeah I have no idea WTF this…

In reply to by milehighmeltdown

Yeah I have no idea WTF this guy is going on about. But then again, it's hard to look good when you're going against GENERATIONAL QUARTERBACK Cam Newton, a guy who has finished above 21st in DVOA precisely one time in his career.

12 Yes.

In reply to by milehighmeltdown

I saw the young TE drop two long passes that hit him right in the hands.  One was a TD, I believe.

Lock doesn't have great talent around him but he's not scared to air it out.

Bruce Arians would love him!

They had enough of a lead that it didn't matter against an inept Pats offense, but he's going to get killed throwing the ball up for grabs against better defenses.

 

10 Waste of an article...

Of all the games played, the Patriots/Broncos was one of the sloppiest.

Newton isn't elite or even good at this point, and teams are forcing him to throw from the pocket, which he isn't good at.

He's not even good at running these days.

The Broncos were limited by Lock's inexperience more than anything the Pats did and they were in the red zone constantly against a Patriots teams looking like a team that needed more practice.

Not sure why you picked this game to analyze.

The Dallas/Arizona game was much more fun to watch and had better players, at least on Zona's side.

How about an article about Buddah Baker's emergence as the best safety in the NFL?

FO sent me survey asking me about their analysis and I explained that I'm tired of reading articles about overexposed teams like the Patriots, Steelers and Chiefs.

Put aside your fanboy bias and write about small market teams...

18 "Not sure why you picked…

"Not sure why you picked this game to analyze."

"Any Given Sunday" only covers upsets, and looking at the week six lines, here were the options:

- Denver over New England (-9.5)

- Chicago over Carolina (-1)

- Atlanta over Minnesota (-4)

- Buccaneers over Packers (-1)

- 49ers over Rams (-3)

I think it's reasonable to pick the biggest upset for the article, especially since it was such a large spread.

"FO sent me survey asking me about their analysis and I explained that I'm tired of reading articles about overexposed teams like the Patriots, Steelers and Chiefs."

"Put aside your fanboy bias and write about small market teams..."

Rivers McCown, a Texans fan, writes "Any Given Sunday".  The previous editions of this article were:

- Raiders over Chiefs

- Browns over Cowboys

- Bears over Falcons

- Rams over Eagles

- Jaguars over Colts

They're covering plenty of teams in this feature, it seems to me.

Looking outside this feature, going down the list of recent single-team articles, you have them writing about the Vikings, Patriots, Vikings again, Bills, and Patriots again ("Word of Muth", which I think covers three specific teams for the whole season), and the Dolphins, Panthers, Bengals, Steelers, and Jaguars ("Film Room").

13 I'd pin that 2nd & 9 sack…

I'd pin that 2nd & 9 sack primarily on Cam.

The TE (85) on the offensive left blocks his man (91) for a bit and does a great job, then lets his man go to release into the flat. Then his defender charges at Cam and takes him down from behind. Cam really should know that this guy is coming - the play is apparently designed to eventually give him a free rush, so Cam ought to know the timing of it. But instead he is caught unawares for the sack. 2nd down from the DEN 39 is a situation where it's especially important to avoid the sack, but Cam loses track of the rusher who he should know is coming.

14 Yikes, I don't know what was…

Yikes, I don't know what was more negative and unbearable, the Broncos and Pats' offensive VOA, or the comments on this article.

15 Seconded

Aye I really like what Rivers is doing with this feature. It's not the same as Film Room. Given the premise, quite often the thrust is going to be "this game confirmed what we already (thought we) knew about Team X". It's always good to see plays and game data to back that up, especially for those of us who didn't see the game and don't closely follow the teams involved.

I would love it, though, if FO's writers collectively put a moratorium on using "going forward" for some time to come / in the immediate future / from now on / etc. Other expressions are available!

16 Or...you know...

The lack of Patriots unity showed that practice actually matters...

They got to work as a team together once over the previous two weeks.  The Bronco's had two weeks of normal schedules.

Shockingly, giving one team more of a chance to plan and prepare in person results in that team having a better performance relative to their baseline.

Go figure!

20 Drew Lock's turnovers.

"Lock has eight turnovers in three games and that would probably be higher had he played a full game against the Steelers."

According to pro-football-reference, Drew Lock has thrown 2 interceptions and lost 1 fumble this year. The Broncos have 5 turnovers on the year in games where Drew Lock took any snaps, and 1 of those turnovers was an interception thrown by Jeff Driskel after the Lock injury against the Steelers.

 

21 Since fumble recovery is…

Since fumble recovery is mostly luck, we tend to count fumbles as turnovers no matter who recovers them. Luck has four fumbles and two interceptions ... which is still only six turnovers so I will change that.

25 Quite a few of Lock's throws…

Quite a few of Lock's throws were pure luck as to whether they would end up as INTs, too.

I agree with the way FO handles fumbles.  I think the way INTs are handled could be improved, but it would require data that probably isn't well tracked.  A lot of possible INTs aren't caught and therefore don't become INTs.  A number of well thrown balls each week bounce off receivers for INTs, but I don't think those throws should be counted against the QB's performance and aren't necessarily predictive (unless he keeps throwing to the same receivers, so maybe there is some predictability here).

Maybe given the the larger number of possible INT events compared to the number of fumbled balls makes the extra work I've suggested above meaningless.  Possibly each QB throws enough balls each year that if they're prone to throw possible INTs enough of those get caught that you can ignore the others, and the receiver-created INTs may even out over the course of a season for all QBs.