After some encouraging performances by starting quarterback Cam Newton and his supporting cast early on during the season, the New England Patriots’ passing attack has been pretty bad as of late. While Newton eventually only missed one game after his Covid-19 diagnosis earlier this month, he has looked shaky following his return while his pocket presence, mechanics and ball security showed signs of deterioration.
The numbers tell a pretty clear story: the former league MVP may have completed a solid 65 percent of this throws over the last two games, but he gained only 255 yards while throwing five interceptions. While Newton did look solid as a runner — gaining 95 yards on 15 carries while also scoring a touchdown — his passing has been sub-par and also led to him getting benched in favor of backup Jarrett Stidham last week against the San Francisco 49ers.
Newton will remain as New England’s QB1 for the time being despite the benching, so what can the team and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels do in order to get him back to acceptable levels of productions?
Give him more chances to throw the football.
This may sound like a controversial statement based on the recent success of the team’s passing game, yes, but there actually is some reason behind advocating for Newton and the Patriots to throw the football more often. This does not mean going for a “Bombs away!” style of attack, though, but rather that McDaniels and his staff should look at a graph like the following and come to the realization that something is amiss (via Michael Leone of Establish The Run):
As can be seen, the graph shows expected pass rate in the NFL depending on factors ranging from down-and-distance to game situation and score. The Patriots, who for years had a pass-first attack while being led by the greatest quarterback of all time, Tom Brady, are dead last in this category seven weeks into this year’s regular season: they are almost 10 percent behind their expectations. This is not ideal given that the pass is the most efficient way to move the ball down the field.
New England, however, is steadfast on trying to establish the run. While it makes some sense to use this approach based on the strength of the team’s personnel in the backfield vis-à-vis the wide receiver and tight end positions, the problem is that the Patriots are putting themselves in unfavorable situations on too regular a basis to build a sustainable offensive rhythm that way. This is especially true early during games.
According to Sharp Football Stats, the Patriots have a run rate of 56 percent in the first half when the score within an eight-point margin to either side. This number is the highest in the NFL, with the next closest team — the Minnesota Vikings — checking in at 54 percent. The league average, meanwhile, is 43 percent.
If we we focus only on early downs by excluding third and fourth tries, that graph becomes even more lopsided: New England now checks in at 63 percent, with the Vikings at 57 and the average NFL team at 48.
Those early-down runs may have worked for the Patriots before Newton’s Coronavirus diagnosis: through the first three games, they had a success rate of 49.4 percent on those attempts (best in the NFL) while registering an EPA of 0.133 (2nd). Lately, however, they no longer seem to do as defenses started investing resources to stop a rushing offense that still ranks in the top six in ever major category.
The sample size is admittedly small, but two weeks worth of abysmal offensive play is plenty enough to see that something is not working. Against San Francisco and the Denver Broncos one week before that, New England’s rushing attempts on first and second down had a success rate of 41.2 percent (15th) with an EPA of only -0.158 (29th).
This brings us back to claim above, that the Patriots should throw the football more often.
After all, not finding success on early downs has an impact on third and possible fourth down as well. From the “Duh!” department: picking up a 3rd-and-2 is easier than picking up a 3rd-and-7. Over the last two weeks, however, the Patriots have found themselves in the latter category more than the former: they needed to gain 6.9 yards on their average third down, compared to 5.9 from Week 1 to Week 3. A yard may not look like a lot here, but it still can make a difference — just ask the Seattle Seahawks.
Numbers never tell the whole story, but they help us better understand it to begin with. And what they tell reflects what can be seen on tape: defenses focus on stopping the run against the Patriots early on, and the team is still trying to move the ball on the ground.
After two bad weeks it might be time for New England to rethink its approach. Setting up the pass through the run has not been working as of late, which means that a different approach could be the solution to their problems: setting up the run through the pass — or at least giving yourself a better chance in both areas by mixing things up a bit more.
Yes, the Patriots’ skill position personnel is not keeping defensive coordinators up at night. That said, the group has shown that it can function in a pass-heavy setting. Again, just ask the Seattle Seahawks. Obviously, there are plenty of defenses better than Seattle’s, but the gist remains regardless of who it is the team is facing: Cam Newton needs to get into a better rhythm within New England’s offense than that of the last two weeks.
More practice time might help him accomplish that. Taking better care of the football might too. And the same also goes for the offensive play selection. It might be time for Josh McDaniels to reevaluate and adapt; it might be time for him to call more passes on early downs.