Cover-2: Here Comes the Sun King

Cover-2: Here Comes the Sun King
Cover-2: Here Comes the Sun King
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Doug Farrar

Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton
Arizona Cardinals 28, Carolina Panthers 21

“I knew a Phoenix in my youth, so let them have their day.” -- W. B. Yeats

Last time Cam Newton was in University of Phoenix Stadium before last Sunday, he was leading the Auburn Tigers to the national championship over the Oregon Ducks. Given the transitional issues Newton has experienced since then (and I’m just talking about the on-field stuff), it would be difficult to expect that his next trip to the Valley of the Sun would be even more impressive.

One record-breaking 422-yard passing performance later, I'm left to ask whether Newton has shown more development and growth in an offseason –- especially an offseason truncated by a lockout -– than any other rookie quarterback I’ve seen. I was in the booth at Lucas Oil Stadium to watch his scouting combine workout, and based solely on that performance ... well, were I a GM, I might not have taken him in the first round.

His pro day was slightly less adventurous, and a bit more in line. From the notes I took at the time:

Newton still has work to do in several areas. As was the case at the combine, when Newton tried to throw to a spot with touch and an arc to his throw, he was all over the place. This has a lot to do with the fact that he's still learning to take snaps under center and make five- and seven-step throws. He's slow at the back of his drops, his weight transfer (the "bounce" that allows the body to guide a throw when it's done right) is inconsistent, and I think that's at the root of it. He went 50 of 60 in his scripted throwing session with three or four catchable balls that were dropped by his receivers.

In a positive sense, there are no weirdnesses to his delivery — the ball absolutely zips out of his hand and he's got a compact release and a fairly consistent release point. He's a bit better on the timing of his underneath throws, though he's still very iffy on longer crosses. He seemed to be overcompensating for the fact that he sailed a bunch of 10-yard outs in Indy by throwing fastballs to his receivers on similar routes this time. That's all well and good, and it shows the work put in, but I wouldn't trust Newton consistently with linebackers in his face — I think he's going to over-adjust on his lack of touch with zoomers, and he's going to get some passes batted down in the NFL when he can't just outrun people.

In the preseason, the main problem I saw from Newton was that his dropback from center was affected by an exaggerated high-stepping style -- he'd sort of Riverdance his way back through five- and seven-step drops, leaving him ill-suited to get off any kind of quick timing throws. Under these circumstances, play action was kind of a joke. Still, it was easy to see his progress in the preseason as a pure thrower, mostly in shotgun sets -- his timing on short to intermediate throws was more consistent, and he was better able to use his estimable arm strength to its best advantage.

Whatever progress I observed from pro day to preseason, however, did not prepare me for what I saw against the Cardinals. First, and most prominently, Newton's footwork when dropping back from under center has improved exponentially in a very short time. I asked 49ers quarterback Alex Smith about this last week, and he told me about the adjustments shotgun quarterbacks have to make both physically and mentally.

"It does sound pretty simple," he said. "But yes, my first year — I still continue to try to refine my footwork and dropping back under center as well as my gun footwork—but yeah, my first year it was especially tough. I can remember playing in games and thinking about my feet. If that’s ever going on, it’s a bad situation. You have so many other important things to be focused on – making good decisions, throwing an accurate ball – you don’t want to be thinking about your feet during a game. Because it was foreign to me, I can vividly remember being out there thinking about my feet as I got under center, so it’s an adjustment.”

The Panthers' offense used to be an amalgam of multi-tight end motion arrays (with new additions Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey, one could argue that it would stay that way), big-back and I-formation sets, and relatively conservative receiver concepts. It was that way under John Fox for a decade, and new head coach Ron Rivera has flipped the script a little. But as was the case for Ben Roethlisberger in 2004 and Matt Ryan in 2008, there's a sense that the offense protects and works very well around Newton. As abysmal as the Panthers’ offense was in 2010, most of that had to do with the fact that they had no functional quarterback. You can’t hide your quarterback in the modern NFL, but Newton has enough rushing opportunities behind him and enough easy targets in front of him to rid him of excuses.

The first drive against the Cardinals was nothing special, though. A return penalty started the Panthers at their own 8-yard line, and Newton threw his first real NFL pass on second-and-8 from the 10. Out of I-formation, with Steve Smith solo left and two tight ends stacked inline right (a TE set the Panthers use so often, I’ve taken to calling it the ‘Panther’ formation when I see other teams do it), Newton threw a little sideline blazer to Smith that put Smith in position to catch the ball, as opposed to the two defenders closing in on him. Newton was a bit exaggerated with the whole “throw it low and away from the cornerback” idea -- Smith had to adjust pretty heavily to make the catch -- but I don’t consider that a problem. He’s going to look overly mechanical in certain areas until he gets with the program.

Newton also took a sack on that first drive, and this was partially the result of his regression to awkward and abrupt footwork on his dropback. He’s a bit like a guy dancing for the first time, and you can almost see him taking the steps in his head. Not enough time to do that against an NFL defense, as Alex Smith said (and knows the very hard way). Arizona’s linebacker cross-zone blitz on second-and-8 from the Carolina 26 didn’t help, either.

Things ramped up on Carolina’s second drive, after two DeAngelo Williams runs and a timeout. On third-and-7 from his own 23, Newton lined up in shotgun with a three-wide set and Shockey in the right flex. Arizona played nickel to counter, but a blitz put Smith one-one-one outside with safety Kerry Rhodes, and Smith just fired past Rhodes on a sideline go. Newton’s offensive line (especially tackle Jordan Gross) worked quickly to the left to pick up the blitz, and cornerback Patrick Peterson’s delayed blitz off that edge took him out of zone look potential -- not a good thing when you’re leaving your free safety alone and deep with Smith. If you don’t get home on a blitz like that ... well, let’s just say that the biggest challenge Arizona’s defense put up on that play was when Adrian Wilson tried to play “keep-away” with the ball in the end zone when Smith was trying to celebrate.

So, kind of a gimme in the coverage department, but everyone wanted to see how Newton would read and adjust to the blitz. I talked to Kurt Warner on an NFL Network media call Tuesday morning, and he had a lot to say about this -- and virtually every other -- aspect of Newton’s game.

"Watching the game here in Arizona ... I was just over at the facility with the Cardinals, and I talked to some of their coaches. They were extremely impressed ... one of the biggest jumps going from college to pro is for guys that are built around athleticism to stay in the pocket, and read things and be patient. I watched many times where I knew that his first guy wasn’t open, and I thought to myself, ‘Okay -- he wants to take off and run,” and he fought that urge and stayed in the pocket. Even though he may have taken a sack in certain situations, I loved the fact that he wasn’t just going to look at one guy and take off and run. He’s going to continue to learn and make plays inside the pocket."

However, Carolina’s next drive ended abruptly when Newton displayed one of the aspects of his game that still needs work: when he’s pressured from the side, he’s not yet comfortable stepping up in the pocket and driving the throw in short spaces. A misfire to Olsen on third-and-10 proved that point. Then, on the penultimate play of the first quarter, he dropped back from center with far less awkwardness, checked Shockey off to the right, and hit Legedu Naanee on a slant for 23 yards.

“And that was probably the most impressive thing to me,” Warner said. “Watching the film and to know: Was he going through his reads? Was his first read open all the time? I was impressed with the way he stood in the pocket and delivered every throw.  He made throw after throw accurately and got it to the right guy. He put the ball in position for his player to make the play.”

Frequently, but not always. On the next play, Newton ran play action to Jonathan Stewart, read the field off his back foot ... and seemed to bail just a bit early. This was certainly expected, but I was surprised just how often Newton kept his eyes downfield rather than bailing.  

“I think that in watching Cam through the preseason, my big question was, could he make all the throws that were there to be made? You’d watch him in preseason, and one throw would be way over his receiver’s head, one might be low, the next one would be perfect. You just didn’t know what you would see from a consistency standpoint.”

Absolutely true, and that’s what I liked most about Newton’s performance overall – you just didn’t see too many floating goatballs or wormburners out there. The opening play of the second quarter was a great example. Coming out of shotgun (where’s he’s still clearly more comfortable), he ran left, kept his eyes downfield, didn’t telegraph the throw, and hit receiver Brandon LaFell on the left sideline on a little zone pocket. Two minutes into the quarter, you saw everything that he’s still working on come home to roost at once: he dropped back awkwardly from center, executed a very iffy playfake, was set upon by the blitz, failed to step up functionally, and was taken down by Rhodes.

The most memorable part of Newton’s debut was probably the game-tying touchdown drive that didn’t happen in the fourth quarter. Down 28-21 with 2:20 left in the game, and starting at his own 17, Newton went four for eight with 64 yards on the drive, and the efforts of running back Mike Goodson on the final pass from the Arizona 6-yard line were only stopped by a Mike-Jones-on-Kevin-Dyson-style play by Cards linebacker Paris Lenon at the 2-yard line with 1:19 remaining.

“I think it’s impressive because a.) He’s a rookie and it’s his first game; and b.) because I don’t think anyone really ever saw that from him through the preseason,” Warner said of that final drive. “For him to come out and perform at that level -- and I really think he played well enough for his team to win – was really one of the highlights of Week 1.”

So, Mr. Warner ... should we take this one game and decree that Cam Newton is the truth, the future, and all that is holy from a quarterbacking perspective?

“Absolutely not. I don’t think we can read too much into one game. I think you’re impressed with him, because very few guys do that, but ... I played against Ryan Leaf in his first preseason game. I remember that he [threw for] 200 yards in a half, threw for a couple touchdowns, and I think he ran for another. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Wow – this guy is the real deal – he has all the tools – this guy is going to be a superstar,’ and of course, we all know what happened. I’m not saying that Cam Newton is that same guy. I love the way he carries himself. But I just say that from the perspective that you can’t write a book on a guy after one game.”

No, we don’t want to crown his ass … but there is a lot to like here. You don’t display this kind of development as a quarterback unless you’re working very, very hard, and that was the major question most had about Newton as a pro. What I took away from the game review was that I really didn’t spend much time talking or thinking about his arm strength, and there’s no question that he’s already got one of the best arms, in terms of raw velocity, in the NFL. That the focus was on so many other things bodes very well for Cam Newton’s future.

Of course, Cam Newton’s near future includes a game this Sunday against the Packers, and Dom Capers’ closet full of coverages. It might be worth a return trip to see just how Newton faces that particular nightmare. Personally, I’d try to gameplan the Pack out of the 2-4-5 looks and other goofiness with liberal doses of option, pistol, and power running – try and force more traditional fronts and fewer of the exotic blitz packages the Packers execute to perfection.

Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo
New York Jets 27, Dallas Cowboys 24

"I was feeling real good and real manly. Until a real cowboy walked by and told me I had my hat on backwards." -- Michael Biehn

Now that Brett Favre seems to be retired for good, the lead quarterback stories among the mainstream media seem to be, in no particular order: Detailing the clutchiness or non-clutchiness of every New York-based quarterback not named Ryan Fitzpatrick; wondering which quarterback with the most “playoff wins” is going to take the next step; which team might be trying to Suck for Luck, and wondering what the hell Tony Romo was thinking on {INSERT NAME OF GENERIC PLAY HERE].

Of course, those looking for ammo on the fourth issue certainly could load up their guns when Romo threw a game-killing pick to Darrelle Revis with less than a minute left in the Dallas Cowboys’ eventual Sunday Night Football loss to the New York Jets. My first thought when the play happened was, “Dude ... why the _(*&^%$^ are you throwing to Darrelle Revis’ side when he has help over the top?!?!?” And after hearing four different, and eminently qualified, people explain what happened on that play, I came away with a more informed version of the same question.

"It was a trap play," Revis said right after the game. "The corner comes to trap the inside guy, [Romo] threw the fade, I saw the ball coming, I was underneath, and I picked it off ... We bluffe. We were playing Cover-5 and we disguised it as Cover-0. We wanted to show Tony blitz coverage, and when the ball was hiked, everybody went to their spots on the field. We baited him, and he threw the [fade].”

“We wanted to get in a formation and a protection that we felt could block out some of their pressures and give Tony a chance to work their outside receivers,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. “It looked like they went to 2-man, and went up underneath – I don’t know if Tony was fooled by it a little bit, but unfortunately, we made that turnover and gave them a chance to win the game.”

“It was a comeback-type route, with Dez on the outside,” Romo said. “But the coverage dictated that ... I think he was right in what he did; he kept going on [the route]. It was a dumb decision. Too reactionary – I should have been sure, and that was my fault.”

As Brian Baldinger of the NFL Network points out in this video (the only All-22 of the play I’ve seen so far), the Jets did a great job of disguising what they wanted to do – they gave Romo a 3-on-2 look on his left side, and a very effective man coverage disguise with Revis on Dez Bryant on the opposite end. Of course, it helps that Revis is the NFL’s best man-on-man cover corner right now, especially on routes that head straight back. Since Romo was thinking comeback, he probably thought he had the efficient pass – when he did not account for at all was Brodney Pool coming over, giving Revis the backside help over the top, and allowing him to wait and gamble on the route with no fear of being burned deep.

In a way, Romo was burned by the efficiency and reliability of his own tight end – he assumed that Pool would see Jason Witten as a threat out of the backfield and spy him as he ran his route. But the play all the way was to watch Romo up top, and see where he went with it. It’s an inexplicable and inexcusable failure by Romo to read the situation – with the Jets bringing six defenders at the line, odds were that Witten was going to stay in to block ... especially out of the backfield, and especially if the Cowboys were reading the disguise the way the Jets wanted them to.

Or, you could just summarize it far more simply: DO NOT EVER throw to Darrelle Revis when he has help up top and doesn’t have to worry about losing a guy in man trail, which he almost never does anyway. That would seem to be a pretty good tip for the future.


19 comments, Last at 16 Sep 2011, 12:31pm

1 Re: Cover-2: Here Comes the Sun King

If Witten had blocked for couple of seconds and then slipped out to the left, wouldn't he have been open? How would the Jets have defended that?

2 Re: Cover-2: Here Comes the Sun King

I just can't stand that type of bitz the Cards used on the long Steve Smith TD, when the corner blitzes after lining up over a receiver split very wide to the open side of the field. From there the cornerback has to run twenty yards to get to the pocket, how fast do you expect the blitz to get there? A defense seeing that formation has to be able to get the hell out of the play.

15 Re: Cover-2: Here Comes the Sun King

It depends on what the defense is seeing. The plan is to have an unblocked rusher, and for a cornerback covering 20 yards shouldn't take more than 3 seconds, so its a viable blitz if used on occasion and you think there's a high probability of the offense going deep, or against an inexperienced QB who may not expect it. I don't much like it either against experienced/competent QBs but I can understand why they employed it against Newton.

16 Re: Cover-2: Here Comes the Sun King

Matt Bowen just talked about this (bringing CB blitzes vs Newton) in this column. Basically said that since a CB blitz is on the QB to pick up it makes sense to bring them versus rookies.

Also, if you don't read his "The Players Page" feature on National Football Post, you should.

17 Re: Cover-2: Here Comes the Sun King

Given a CB running a 4.4 40, and accounting for acceleration, probably 2.5-3 seconds, which isn't really any slower than any type of pass rush where a guy has to beat a blocker. Coming from his blindside as well increases the odds of a fumble. Yes, its more effective coming from the slot, but that's also easier to pick up.

18 Re: Cover-2: Here Comes the Sun King

I reckon that if your blitz takes three seconds to bring any pressure then you're pretty screwed, especially if that blitz involves your best cornerback. The ball is supposed to be gone after three seconds in Martz's offense, yet alone anyone else's.

6 Re: Cover-2: Here Comes the Sun King

OK but besides all of that Dez was hurt. He couldn't run! So throwing a hard breaking route to a gimpy WR covered by Revis? Hell no! The right way to think about it is more like: OK, so they are using their best defender on our worst receiving threat right now, great, that should give me a favorable matchup somewhere else.

8 Re: Cover-2: Here Comes the Sun King

Yeah, that was actually my thought, too. It seems like someone from the Jets saw something on film and they put that play on - it was like they KNEW Romo would make the wrong choice when he saw that coverage, so they weren't worried about singling Austin.

9 Re: Cover-2: Here Comes the Sun King

looking at the replay link (thank you!) it WAS a great disguise.
I remember a similar play when the Patriots - Colts rivalry was getting going, I think it might have been Asante Samuel. He lined up in man, turned his back to the QB and ran with the WR on his outside release. At about 6 yards he turned around and came back and picked off Peyton who was throwing the out route to slot WR. Peyton was thinking that the CB would clear out with the split end in man coverage. Hey if Peyton will fall for it I guess I can't blame Romo hehe.

10 Re: Goatball? Wormburner?

Not to mention: What? No Matt Stafford: Countdown to IR?

12 Re: Cover-2: Here Comes the Sun King

Doug, I wanted to let you know I thought you made a huge improvement last year in terms of writing. I would definitely give you most improved writer of the FO team. I really like what you are doing.

However, I do have a minor quibble with this article. The following paragraph seems out of place, shouldn't it be placed after the one succeeding it? It just seems strange introducing Warner than not having anything from in for a full paragraph.

So, kind of a gimme in the coverage department, but everyone wanted to see how Newton would read and adjust to the blitz. I talked to Kurt Warner on an NFL Network media call Tuesday morning, and he had a lot to say about this -- and virtually every other -- aspect of Newton’s game

14 Re: Cover-2: Here Comes the Sun King

Thanks. This paragraph was in the piece right after the Warner intro but wasn't showing up for some reason (since fixed):

"Watching the game here in Arizona ... I was just over at the facility with the Cardinals, and I talked to some of their coaches. They were extremely impressed ... one of the biggest jumps going from college to pro is for guys that are built around athleticism to stay in the pocket, and read things and be patient. I watched many times where I knew that his first guy wasn’t open, and I thought to myself, ‘Okay -- he wants to take off and run,” and he fought that urge and stayed in the pocket. Even though he may have taken a sack in certain situations, I loved the fact that he wasn’t just going to look at one guy and take off and run. He’s going to continue to learn and make plays inside the pocket."