Despite having many of the same pieces and same issues as last year, the Patriots offense has the potential to be much better this year.
Rewatching Sunday’s 21-11 win over the Dolphins showed as much.
Since the Super Bowl run of 2018, the Patriots have been more of a ground-based offense. This is due to a lack of weapons, as Julian Edelman has been the only reliable receiver on the outside. The strength of the offense has been the line and the stable of running backs. The passing game revolves around play-action and quick, defined throws.
When Tom Brady was the quarterback, he was a nonentity in the run game, other than an occasional scramble or short-yardage dive. The defense didn’t have to account for Brady, and had two free players to chase down the ballcarrier. There really was only one way for the Patriots to run the ball: by handing off.
But with Cam Newton at quarterback, the Patriots have an extra blocker every time he runs the ball, and far more variety in their rushing attack. Sunday against Miami, the Patriots ran six types of running plays: 22 traditional handoffs, nine read-option plays, seven designed quarterback keepers, one end-around, one traditional option run, and one QB scramble.
The Dolphins had trouble deciphering the varied attack. The Patriots rushed for 218 yards, averaged 5.3 yards per carry, and had only four negative rushes out of 41 attempts (excluding one kneel-down). Newton carried the ball 14 times for 76 yards (5.4 average), two touchdowns, and seven first downs.
The Patriots won’t be able to play with a 41/22 run/pass balance each week, and can’t survive long-term if they don’t develop more weapons in the passing game.
But Newton brings a lot more variety to the attack. It’s a dynamic they never had with Brady.
Let’s look at the different facets of the run game and how they worked against the Dolphins:
9 attempts, 48 yards (5.3 average), 5 first downs
The read-option has been in the NFL for about a decade, since the days of Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick. But this is an entirely new element for the Patriots.
The read-option is almost always done out of the shotgun and a single-back formation. The quarterback takes the snap, sticks the football in the running back’s belly, and reads the one unblocked defender, usually a defensive end or outside linebacker.
Depending on which way the defender bites, the quarterback will complete the handoff or keep the ball himself. The point at which he has the ball in the running back’s belly is called the “mesh point,” and is a dangerous time for fumbles.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels wasted no time showing the world his shiny new read-option plays, calling it on the Patriots' second, third, eighth, and ninth plays.
On the first attempt, Newton faked former Patriot Kyle Van Noy out of his shoes and scooted 10 yards up the middle for the first down. Rex Burkhead also gained 15 yards around the left edge on a read-option, badly faking out defensive end Shaq Lawson. And on one 6-yard run by Newton in the third quarter, Lawson tackled James White in the backfield, not realizing that White didn’t have the ball.
The Dolphins did stop four of the read-option runs for 2 yards or less. The play doesn’t work as well when the defense can stack the line and send multiple defenders crashing into the “mesh point.” Or if the defensive end stays disciplined and doesn’t bite one way or the other.
Newton likes to keep the ball if he can, accounting for six of the Patriots' nine read-option attempts (gaining 24 yards and two first downs). Burkhead, White, and Sony Michel got one attempt each.
DESIGNED QB KEEPERS
7 attempts, 40 yards (5.7 average), 2 TDs, 4 first downs
This was a major weapon, one that was never in the arsenal before. Newton was his own short-yardage running back, getting the call with designed runs on third and 5, third and 6, fourth and 1, and first and goal. Six of these seven runs came out of the shotgun, giving Newton the same perspective as a running back.
The Dolphins were completely unprepared to defend Newton as a runner; they played man coverage for most of the game, and McDaniels toyed with them as he moved his pieces around and created space for Newton.
On a third-and-5 play in the second quarter, the Patriots came out in a shotgun spread formation, with the Dolphins in man coverage with two deep safeties. When White motioned out of the backfield, drawing his defender with him, it left the Patriots with a six-on-four advantage in the box. Newton took the snap and dashed 7 yards up the middle for the easy first-down conversion.
Both touchdown runs came with a similar design — spreading the defense out, and clearing out one side of the field for Newton. His first touchdown was a 4-yard run out of a spread shotgun formation. Three receivers lined up to the left, White went in motion to the left, leaving Newton isolated on a single defender and the entire right side of the field open.
Newton’s second touchdown came from under center, but it was a similar play. Three receivers lined up left, Newton faked an end-around to Burkhead, then had the entire right side to himself.
There was only one designed run for Newton that went for negative yardage, when the Dolphins brought an extra defender into the box and Shaq Mason seemed to miss his block.
1 attempt, 12 yards, 1 first down
Newton had only one scramble, but it was a good one. On a first-and-10 in the fourth quarter, he dropped back to pass, couldn’t find his receiver, and took off to the left side, picking up 12 yards and a first down. That’s another weapon the Patriots never really had with Brady.
1 attempt, 7 yards
McDaniels gave opposing defenses something to think about when he called a traditional option play in the fourth quarter.
Newton lined up in the shotgun next to White, took the snap, and rolled to his right. But as soon as defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah committed to the quarterback, Newton pitched the ball outside to White, who scooted 7 yards upfield.
This play was dangerous because it looked just like another designed run for Newton.
23 attempts, 110 yards (4.8 average), 1 TD, 6 first downs
The meat-and-potatoes running game was more average than great; take out Edelman’s 23-yard end-around and the numbers become more pedestrian. But the running backs ran hard and converted some tough short-yardage runs.
Michel took nine handoffs, all from under center, and gained 34 yards with a touchdown and two first downs, drawing praise from Bill Belichick for his short-yardage running. Burkhead took six handoffs, four from under center, and gained 17 yards with one first down.
White took three handoffs, all from shotgun, and gained 8 yards. And undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor was a revelation, taking four handoffs from under center and gaining 28 yards with two first downs.
Despite standing just 5 feet 6 inches and weighing 185 pounds, Taylor runs hard between the tackles. He had an 11-yard run on which it took four defenders to bring him down. He should get more carries moving forward.
8 of 9 for 99 yards, 6 first downs, 1 sack, 1 lost fumble, 1 rush for 12 yards
Play-action is going to be a huge part of the offense, considering how much the Patriots are running the ball. McDaniels called 22 passing plays Sunday, and 11 of them included play-action, which gives Newton time in the pocket and gives the receivers time to get open downfield.
Newton’s one incompletion on play-action was his first attempt, the one over the middle that was dropped by Edelman. The second play-action pass was a sack, but the last nine plays were executed well.
There was the 25-yard pass to tight end Ryan Izzo. There were three straight play-action passes to start the third quarter that went for first downs — 10 and 16 yards to Edelman, and 11 yards to White. Also first downs over the middle to Edelman (9 yards) and N’Keal Harry (13 yards), and a 6-yard swing pass to Harry.
The play that Harry fumbled out of the end zone was a play-action pass. And Newton’s 12-yard scramble also came on play-action.