Film Breakdown: How Cam Newton and the Patriots Revitalized their Passing Attack

Two games into the regular season and the Patriots have already answered a question on the minds of Patriots Nation since late June: What will the passing attack look like with Cam Newton at the wheel? Even in a loss, Patriots fans will be happy with the answer to that question. After all, it’s been quite a while since we’ve seen the kind of passing attack Newton and Josh McDaniels unleashed on the, frankly, overmatched Seattle defense. Newton’s 397 passing yards are a far cry from the 155 passing yards he posted in the Week 1 win over Miami.

To say that Sunday’s game against Seattle was the antithesis of what the Patriots offense looked like in 2019 is an understatement. Newton and the Patriots aired the football out, peppering the Seattle defense with intermediate passes before bombing some deep beauties over the top to surprise deep threat Julian Edelman. The Seahawks secondary could hardly cover a group of wide receivers that most have labeled as among the worst in the NFL.

So how did it happen? What did the Patriots do to open up the passing game? We’ll break it all down in our latest film breakdown. Here’s how Cam Newton and the Patriots revitalized their passing attack.

Targeting the Boundaries

From the Patriots’ very first drive, it was clear that they wanted to establish the intermediate passing game. New England seemed intent on attacking the boundaries of Seattle’s patented cover 3 defense. They did this by using a combination of curls, comebacks, ins, and outs. On this play, early in the game, Damiere Byrd runs a comeback route for 14 yards. Seattle corner Quinton Dunbar, playing his deep third, has no chance to defend the play.

Even when the Seahawks weren’t in their traditional cover 3 look, the Patriots still aimed to attack the boundaries. In the clip above, Seattle lines up in a disguised cover 2 shell. The coverage doesn’t matter to New England, the plan remains the same; hit Byrd for an intermediate gain. Newton sees the coverage and tries to buy time for Byrd to clear the corner and settle into the hole between Dunbar and Jamal Adams. Byrd works back to Newton and the Patriots pick up 20 yards.

Attacking the Middle of the Field

After hitting on a few perimeter passes, the Patriots offense shifted its focus to the middle of the field. New England kept Seattle off balance by mixing in some in and out-breaking routes. Here, Seattle plays a cover 4. Watch how filthy wide open Byrd gets here. Byrd has been running vertical routes all game so when he shows vertical Dunbar bites. The safety on that side also thinks it’s a vertical route, so he doesn’t bump down to cover Byrd. 

Neither defensive back on the opposite side of the field is available to help either, as both go with N’Keal Harry who is screaming upfield. Byrd starts to work back to Newton who places the ball in a spot that ultimately protects Byrd. If Newton is able to uncork this ball to Byrd running across the field it’s a VERY long gainer.

Did we mention Edelman had a career-high in receiving yards? The bulk of his 179 receiving yards came on crossing routes over the middle, a familiar sight to Patriots fans. Edelman has always done a great job of finding space in zone coverage.

It’s more of that here. The Seahawks blitz and Edelman is WIDE open over the middle of the field. The throw is a hair late but the ball placement here is impeccable. Newton puts the ball on Edelman’s back shoulder to get him turned upfield toward space, thus avoiding leading him into Adams’ coverage.

Double Crossers

Here’s another example of great ball placement on crossing patterns. This time, it’s a 17 yarder to Harry. The ball is intentionally thrown low to protect both the ball (from Griffin) and Harry (from Wright).

This play from late in the game is essentially the same as the play before; double-crossers from Harry and Edelman. The Seahawks are in a rare man-coverage defense and while Harry doesn’t gain a ton of separation, he comes down with a 12-yard laser from Newton.

Deep Throws

With the Seahawks taking repeated body blows 10-20 yards down the field the Patriots kept Seattle honest by attempting a handful of deep passes. None were more impressive than this DIME to Edelman over Adams. Adams became very acquainted with the red 11’s on the back of Edelman’s jersey by the end of this one. Byrd and Harry are running deep stop routes and Edelman is running up the seam. Newton buys time and finds Edelman downfield with Adams trailing for Newton’s biggest completion of the night.

Look familiar? Same play, same result. Edelman is open deep with Adams trailing behind. Newton follows this up with a TD that pulls New England within five.

Here’s another high-level deep throw from Newton. With Seattle in a zone, it leaves Adams in charge of picking up Edelman as he comes across the field. The result is another deep completion to Edelman.

The Passing Attack Moving Forward

The passing attack displayed in Sunday night’s loss to the Seahawks was something we haven’t seen from the Patriots in a while. In 2019, the offense was predicated on short passes over the middle with a few intermediate throws mixed in and desperation deep shots. In 2020, the Patriots seem to be shifting to a more balanced attack that attacks all three levels and they’re doing it methodically.

The offense attacks the short middle early, then pushes deep when the defense attempts to take the short game away. Byrd’s ability to create separation on stop routes on the perimeter coupled with Harry’s ability to make contested catches short and Edelman’s prowess at all three levels gives the Patriots options on how to attack opposing defenses. That’s not to say all the Patriots problems at wide receiver are solved or that they couldn’t use another weapon, but they have something to work with and that’s more than what they had last season.

Losing a game is never a good thing but losses can often reveal what a team is, as much as it shows what a team isn’t. If Sunday night in Seattle is any indication of how the offense will look going forward, the Patriots will surprise a lot of people. The much-maligned receiving core showed that it can win in more ways than they’re credited for. The offense as a whole showed that with McDaniels and Newton leading the offense, the Patriots can hang with any team in the league. The next test for this group will be their ability to show consistency.

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