Film Room: Patriots Passing Game
The Cam Newton-era Patriots got off to an electric start through their first two weeks. Though they narrowly fell short against Seattle in prime time, the Patriots offense looked like the real deal. Newton's dual-threat nature added a new element, the receiver corps looked somewhat improved, and the base run game was on fire. New England's offense looked like a solid grind-it-out squad with just enough star power and hero ball from Newton to be in every game.
Things unraveled from there. After a middling showing in a win against the Raiders in Week 3, Newton was placed on the COVID-19 reserve list for a positive test on October 3. He missed the following two weeks, one of which was a bye. Upon returning, Newton looked horrible. He was legitimately one of the worst starters in the league in Weeks 6 and 7, throwing five interceptions without throwing a single touchdown. He looked slow mentally and physically and was even benched towards the latter half of the San Francisco game in Week 7.
And then, unexpectedly, the train got back on the tracks. Since Week 8, the Patriots passing offense has looked as good as it has all year. Three of New England's top-five passing DVOA performances have been the past three weeks, with last week's game against Baltimore taking the crown with a 78.9% DVOA rating.
Intermediate crossing routes have played a huge part in the revival of the offense. Not only does Newton thrive over the intermediate area to begin with, but offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has done better to help open those concepts up. A few weeks ago, for instance, the Patriots had Sean McDermott's Bills defense spinning with how effectively they were using crossing routes. While Buffalo did end up narrowly putting out the win, they had no real answers for New England's crossing concepts.
The Bills come out in a two-deep shell versus the Patriots' 3x1 trey (trips with a tight end) formation. Against trey/trips with a two-high shell this tight to the middle of the field, some form of quarters, or perhaps Nick Saban's Cover-5, is the most likely coverage here. The Bills could also have tight safety so that the middle-of-the-field safety has a shorter landmark in the event that they were dropping the other safety for a Cover-3/Cover-1 look.
Newton then shifts one wide receiver into the opposite slot and the Bills respond by dropping their weak safety down into the slot. Whether this is a built-in adjustment to the coverage Buffalo was already running or an entirely new call does not much matter to Newton. The Bills are now forced to show their hand and present Newton with a one-high shell either way. Assuming this will be some form of Cover-1 or Cover-3, Newton now knows the crosser from the right slot just needs to clear the hook player(s).
The nice wrinkle here is motioning the tight end into the backfield at the last second. In doing so, a few more run concepts become available to New England because you can "create" gaps with the fullback whereas a tight end would have been more or less locked into a gap on the edge. That last-second motion serves to pull all of the linebackers down to the line of scrimmage because they are trying to consider all the new run possibilities right before the snap. When the outside receiver to the left runs a short pivot route to keep the cornerback low, the crosser opens up with ease. The throw could be better, but Newton connects and the Patriots move the sticks.
Here is the same exact concept, this time from shotgun and without the tight end moving to the backfield. With the cornerback to the short side of the field playing off coverage as opposed to being walked up to the receiver like in the last clip, Newton knows he has to keep that cornerback shallow somehow. While the play-action holds the hook players for a bit, Newton fakes a throw to the pivot route. The fake gets the cornerback to literally trip over himself and hit the dirt, giving Newton an angle to throw over the hook defender's outside shoulder and underneath the deep safety.
The Patriots have also started to rediscover success on two-man, max-protection shot plays. One receiver clears vertically on a go or post while the other cuts across the field at about 15 yards. Basically, every variation of this gets lumped into being called "Yankee," which isn't really the case, but it gets the general idea across. The Shanahan tree coaches are the biggest users of this concept, but every team uses it in some capacity, and the Patriots have started to embrace Newton as a quarterback who thrives on intermediate-to-deep concepts such as that one.
Since both routes are so far down the field, plays like this take a while to develop. Quarterbacks must be able to hang in the pocket, trust their protection to do enough, and fire down the field. Newton has always been good at that when healthy and this clip is a good example of that. With the max protection and play-action, New York's entire front is sucked towards the line of scrimmage, leaving the receiver over the middle a ton of room to work with. It is then Newton's job to maneuver in the pocket to deliver, which he does. Newton does a great job holding his initial spot until the blitzer on the edge gets too much depth around the arc, giving Newton the green light to step up behind some good protection from his guards and nail this throw.
That kind of movement and quick reset from Newton is critical. When he was first working back from being on the COVID list, it seemed as though Newton did not quite have the same juice and flexibility. His game was a bit sluggish. Agile movements perfectly transitioned into throws like this felt out of reach. Now that it has been a while, though, Newton seems to have found his groove again and these plays are back on the table.
It also helps that McDaniels has done well to sprinkle in concepts that riff off of how defenses want to play "Yankee" style concepts. More specifically, the Patriots have called a number of plays over the past few weeks in which the receiver on the crosser stops and cuts back outside. NFL cornerbacks will often commit hard to the crosser once they believe it is developing, so cutting things back the other way can be a real doozy.
That is exactly what happens on these two plays, particularly the second clip against the Ravens. As soon as each cornerback sees the route start developing, they try to lean towards inside leverage to cut the receiver off. Wide receiver Jakobi Meyers, who has stepped up of late, does a wonderful job getting open through two different avenues. In the first, he has to absorb the contact, then sink his hips and bend around the defensive back to get to the corner route, almost like a pass-rusher turning around the arc. In the second clip, the defensive back affords him more space, so he takes his time in setting up the defensive back to turn inside with some fancy footwork.
Aside from maybe Julian Edelman, Meyers is the best option for being the crosser/corner player on these concepts. He is by far the most refined route-runner on the roster besides Edelman, and he has proven himself plenty sturdy enough against physical defensive backs to play through his routes. So long as Meyers can continue operating at this level, the passing offense should be able to keep finding success with these concepts.
The Patriots' passing offense is by no means fully fixed. There is no legitimate deep threat on the team, while the dropback (non-play-action) passing game is still shaky, in part due to a lack of tight end talent. It is an incomplete, albeit improving, passing game.
That being said, if the receiver corps can remain healthy-ish and the run game can continue to dominate, especially from under center, the Patriots may kick into their typical late-season surge. Living through the run game and intermediate play-action concepts while sprinkling in Newton's run threat from shotgun is an honest way to live, and not very far from what many imagined the offense to be heading into the year.