Would Cam Newton show any signs of weakness in his first football game in a full calendar year? Would the Patriots’ defense limp out of the gates after losing at least six of their core pieces in the offseason? Can the new offense produce in their first game together?
All those questions and more were answered in the Patriots’ 21-11 victory over the Dolphins on Sunday. Some things to consider as the 1-0 Patriots prepare for the Seahawks this Sunday night:
- Cam Newton’s 19 pass attempts were the fewest pass attempts by a New England Quarterback since Jacoby Brissett completed 11-of-19 in September 2016. Tom Brady hadn’t attempted fewer than 20 passes in a game since December 2014.
- The Patriots lost more than half of their defensive starters over the offseason. Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung opted out. Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts, Jaime Collins, Danny Shelton, and Duron Harmon all found new homes amidst the overhaul in New England.
- Julian Edelman and N’Keal Harry were the only two wide receivers to be targeted all game. Both ended with five catches, but neither gained more than 60 yards.
The New England Patriots are 1-0, marking the franchise’s third straight Opening Day victory. So, what did we learn?
Cam Newton’s Still Got It, and the Patriots Know It
Losing you-know-who, only to replace him with another former MVP gunslinger, the Patriots found themselves under a microscope. Belichick or Brady, who needed each other more? Would Cam Newton embrace the culture in New England? And above all, would he still produce with his lengthly injury history? The Belichick vs Brady argument is for another article, but in the meantime, let’s talk about Cameron Jerrell Newton. Leading the team in carries, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns, Newton was the best offensive player in that game. Standing 6-5, 245 pounds, his physical presence was not only apparent, but a critical element of the offensive game-plan.
Newton’s 75 rush yards were the most by a Patriots’ quarterback in a game since Steve Grogan ran for 81 in 1977. His fifteen carries were his most in a single game since October 2014. Further, those carries weren’t exactly disguised by the offense. Fourteen of those were designed runs. Through a collection of zone reads, draws, and power designs, Josh McDaniels stayed committed to Newton’s strengths in week one. The Patriots gained 217 total rush yards to only 155 pass yards, cementing the pivot in offensive philosophy from season’s past, and quarterback’s past.
On the Patriots’ first touchdown, they lined up in the shotgun from the four-yard line with three receivers to his left, and the lone tight end Ryan Izzo to his right. James White went in motion from right to left, leaving Newton alone with his blockers on the right side. Newton took the snap and practically walked into the end zone, completely untouched. In a situation with no true power rusher, Cam Newton was that power rusher. This play design wasn’t even in the playbook at this time last year.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) September 13, 2020
On the Patriots’ second rushing score of the day, they lined up at the eleven-yard line with three receivers out wide to the left, one running back, and Ryan Izzo out to the right.
Sound familiar? That’s because it was virtually the same formation as Newton’s first score, save for him lining up under center instead of in the gun. Rex Burkhead went right to left on the bootleg play fake, drawing the defense and allowing Newton to gain the right edge. Next stop, paydirt.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) September 13, 2020
Cam Newton is the strongest and most physical running back on the Patriots’ roster. The Patriots knew it, the Dolphins knew it, and it still worked. Providing an element of brute force and versatility to the New England run game, Newton took the Patriots’ game-plan and ran with it, literally and figuratively, all while looking as healthy as ever.
The Patriots Defense Hasn’t Missed a Beat, Yet
Amid the rollercoaster that was the 2019 Patriots’ offseason, lots of focus fell upon the quarterback position, and rightfully so. And despite losing the greatest quarterback to ever live, there was an even more impactful departure in New England. Or should I say departures.
This offseason completely decimated the Patriots defense. Losing at least six of their core pieces, the defensive adjustments will prove instrumental to this team’s success going forward. Ryan Fitzpatrick completed 20 of 30 pass attempts for 182 yards with three interceptions. The Dolphins managed a mere 87 rushing yards to the tune of 3.2 yards per carry. The Patriots controlled time of possession by nearly ten whole minutes, and the Dolphins went 4-for-11 on 3rd down.
The secondary proved to be the glue that held it all together in their debut. The cornerback duo of Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson (the best cornerback duo in the NFL, but I digress) recorded two of the three interceptions. Jackson’s takeaway in the end zone punctuated the victory, while Gilmore practically ran the receiver’s route for him on his interception. This tandem can, and will be counted on to stymie opposing wideouts all season long, and this is as good a start as any, despite the level of the offensive opponent.
Yes, it was the Dolphins. Yes, it was Ryan Fitzpatrick. Will they encounter better opposition and higher quality offensive talents along the way? Inevitably, as the Patriots have the most difficult schedule in the NFL. However, to come out of the gates in week one and put together a cohesive and effective defensive performance is all we can ask for at this point.
The Offense Lacks Explosiveness
As mentioned earlier, Edelman (5 catches, 57 yards) and Harry (5 catches, 39 yards) were the only receivers to get targeted. The longest gain through the air came on Cam Newton’s first completion as a Patriot, a 25-yard gain to Ryan Izzo down the left seam off a play action design.
The wide receiver position remains dreadfully shallow. Despite the evident commitment to the run, the Patriots can’t, and won’t, win all of their games that way. Cam Newton is by no means a slouch in the passing game, but defenses don’t exactly have their plates full when preparing for this air attack as it stands.
Allen Robinson II and Odell Beckham Jr. found themselves on the rumor mill today, and it was only a matter of time until they were linked to the Patriots. Will Belichick make a move for a receiver to supplement their power running philosophy? Only time will tell. One thing is certain: this offense will only win so many games on the ground.
The Patriots will travel to Seattle for a date with the Seahawks this Sunday night. The Seahawks objectively pose more threats than the Dolphins on both sides of the ball. Week Two is bound to reveal just how capable the Patriots can be in diversifying their offense, and whether or not the defense’s week one lockdown was the real deal, or simply a mirage against an inferior opponent.
–Ethan Roy is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @_EthanRoy