Julian Edelman and N’Keal Harry were practically invisible in the Patriots’ loss to the Broncos Sunday.
Edelman had just two catches for 8 yards, continuing a troubling trend; since going for 179 yards in Week 2, Edelman has just seven catches for 66 yards in three games.
And Harry was completely shut out, with no catches on two targets. Since compiling a career-high eight catches for 72 yards in Week 2, Harry has just five catches for 55 yards and a touchdown.
This lack of production raises a few obvious questions: Are defenses putting extra attention on Edelman and Harry? Are the receivers not creating separation? Is Edelman losing his speed, or is Harry not picking up the offense?
The answer, it turns out, has little to do with the receivers and a lot more to do with the quarterback.
An All-22 film review of the Patriots' 18-12 loss was clear: Cam Newton needs to help his receivers, not the other way around.
Newton threw for only 157 yards, but it wasn’t because the receivers couldn’t get separation. Receivers were open. Opportunities were there. On the list of things to blame for the offense’s poor performance, the receivers rank far below the play of Newton and his offensive line.
“Cam played poorly with the small things," tweeted former quarterback Dan Orlovsky of ESPN. “His eyes. His accuracy. HIS FEET WERE SO BAD.”
To be fair, Newton was not in an easy spot. He’s still new to the offense and he barely had any practice in the previous two-plus weeks. Tom Brady could operate at a high level without practicing, but Newton is still a young pup in the Patriots offense and needs the work.
That said, the struggles of Edelman and Harry, and of the offense as a whole, had much more to do with Newton and the line.
From the All-22:
Newton didn’t see the field well and didn’t throw with good anticipation.
The Broncos didn’t really do anything special to Edelman or Harry in coverage — no consistent double-teams or chipping at the line of scrimmage. Newton just didn’t see the field well, and admitted as much in his Monday interview on WEEI.
“The anticipation was off,” he said. “Not having practice for as long as I [haven’t] had practice, it just showed.”
On the third-to-last play of the game, Newton had Damiere Byrd streaking wide open across the middle. A good, timely throw would have gotten Byrd down near the goal line or even into the end zone. But Newton clutched the ball, brought it down, and took a costly sack.
Earlier in the game, Newton took another costly sack on third down after locking onto Byrd and not seeing Ryan Izzo leaking out wide open into the flat.
Newton left a lot of hidden yardage on the field. A 7-yard throw to Byrd could have been a 20-yard throw to Harry in the middle of a soft zone, but Newton wouldn’t pull the trigger. A 14-yard checkdown to Damien Harris should have been another big throw to Harry over the middle. And a 19-yard gain to Byrd on the left side could have been bigger if Newton had seen Edelman streaking down the right seam.
Byrd previously played with Newton in Carolina, and Newton noticeably locked onto him several times Sunday.
Newton just missed some throws.
Newton’s accuracy was off. Late in the fourth quarter, Byrd got open deep down the left sideline on a double move, but a potential touchdown turned into an incompletion when Newton underthrew the ball. Later on the final drive, Newton had Edelman open across the middle, but the ball just slipped out of his hand and fell incomplete.
On the final play of the game, fourth and 10 at the 24, the Broncos blitzed seven defenders, leaving every Patriots receiver in one-on-one coverage. Harry was open for a 15-yard gain on a deep comeback, and Newton read it correctly, but he delivered a wild throw that never had a chance.
And in the first quarter, a slant pass to James White went for 9 yards and converted a third down, but the throw was low and away from White, sending him tumbling to the ground after the catch. A better throw would have resulted in a big catch and run.
No designed plays for Harry or Edelman.
Usually when a receiver isn’t getting into the flow of a game, the offensive coordinator will dial up one or two designed plays just to get the ball in his hands.
But Josh McDaniels didn’t do that Sunday. The Patriots ran five designed plays, and four of them went to White on screen passes.
Harry didn’t get one bubble screen, end around, or quick slant. At 6 feet 3 inches, 220 pounds, he has the potential to be dynamic with the ball in his hands. He just needs opportunities.
Edelman got one bubble screen that he took for 5 yards and looked like a set-up for the double pass. But considering how important Edelman is to the offense, McDaniels should have dialed up more plays to keep him more involved.
“Julian’s always a big part of what we want to try to do, and I need to do a good job of trying to get him going,” McDaniels said Tuesday.
The Patriots have noticeably been limiting Edelman’s opportunities thus far. He was the No. 3 receiver against Denver, and has been for the season, playing in 69.4 percent of snaps. Harry has played in 78.9 percent, while Byrd has played 92.6 percent.
“It’s a long season,” McDaniels said last week of Edelman. “You just want to make sure you manage them and be smart, handle them the right way. He does a great job of communicating that.”
The offensive line didn’t help, particularly Isaiah Wynn.
It wasn’t a shock to see Newton with pass rushers in his face for most of the game — not with the Patriots playing a patchwork offensive line that included three rookies. Whether Newton didn’t diagnose the blitz correctly or the linemen didn’t pick it up, there were more than a few plays where the Broncos created a free shot on Newton by confusing the Patriots with their blitz.
But Isaiah Wynn, the third-year veteran who had played well this year at left tackle, was surprisingly poor Sunday, playing left guard in the first half and left tackle in the second half.
Wynn missed the block that allowed Shelby Harris to deflect Newton’s pass for an interception on the opening drive. Wynn got beaten badly on a 12-yard throw to Byrd and a 10-yard completion to Edelman that Newton threw with defenders in his face. Wynn gave up a strip-sack to Bradley Chubb in the third quarter, getting bowled over backward. And he allowed a sack to Malik Reed on the third-to-last play of the game.