Patriots get defensive with questionable quarterback play
Defensive lineman Trey Flowers sacks Cam Newton to cap off another solid game (photo source: pantherswire.usatoday.com)
After the Patriots defeated the Panthers in Charlotte on Friday night the media was buzzing about the disappointing performance by quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Indeed the young QB made a few silly decisions that luckily ended up not costing the team. The strip-sack-fumble when he tried to elude Pro Bowl linebacker Thomas Davis instead of throwing the ball away when he left the tackle box. This was a classic case of a young quarterback trying to do too much instead of cutting his losses and moving onto the next down. We can be sure the film review with the coaching staff will be a learning experience for him.
Somewhat lost in the headlines, however, was the licking the Patriots defense put on the Panthers offense. The Panthers offensive efficiency is predicated on a physical ground attack, a vertical passing game using its speedy wideouts, and, most importantly, by Cam Newton's playmaking ability inside and outside the pocket. The reigning league MVP makes a living by keeping plays alive with his strength and athleticism by either scrambling for big yardage or making impromptu hookups with his receivers after they break their routes and escape down the field. Since Newton can keep the play alive for so long often times coverage will either break down in the secondary or running lanes will open. For the vast majority of the time of the 1 vs. 1's, the Patriots defense kept Newton in check and frustrated him into some poor decisions.
Bill Belichick has often stated that a strong pass rush and solid downfield coverage are intertwined rather than independent of each other. Friday night's game showed the Patriots in tight coverage on the skilled Carolina receiver corps. While Newton's favorite target Greg Olsen was inactive due to injury, Newton still had speedy Ted Ginn, as well as the big wideouts Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess. At times, all three played together and the Patriots secondary matched up beautifully. Newton's first interception was a classic example of the defensive layers working in tandem. Defensive lineman Trey Flowers hurried the quarterback's pass enough to make him throw off his back foot and into tight coverage, as cornerback Logan Ryan made an athletic play on the ball to corrall the INT.
On the Duron Harmon pick, this time it was Chris Long and one of training camp's surprises, Anthony Johnson, doing the work in the trenches to force the turnover. On this possession, journeyman Derek Anderson was at the helm. He probably wished they had left Newton in the game after Long's bull rush on his right, coupled with Johnson's power move on the inside, panicked Anderson into overthrowing the receiver into the awaiting arms of the safety, Harmon.
It should be noted that the defense excelled at demonstrating another Belichick favorite, which he calls "hidden yardage on the field." On the Harmon pick he fought off the receiver in the end zone to return the ball to the 25 yard line. The same positive result happened on the Devin McCourty interception as he made an aggressive return up the middle for 22 yards, which positioned the offense on the Panthers 48. This time it wasn't the pass rush that forced the turnover, but rather the defensive scheme, which assigned Long to drop into zone coverage. Newton never saw him and the defensive end batted the ball high into the air into McCourty's waiting arms. The end result demonstrated why more defensive lineman should play the tip drill rather than trying to gain the glory by catching the ball because most of them can't catch very well.
Complimentary football. Another Belichick favorite. An interception followed by a good return, and then a beautiful touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Chris Hogan. Instead of the Panthers continuing a drive around midfield for points, in a matter of 4 plays, the visitors hung 6 on them. Until that point, the Patriots offense was fairly stagnant, outside of the first drive when Garoppolo drove the team into ranger for Stephen Gostkowski, who uncharacteristically missed a 30 yarder. So despite a pretty anemic offensive attack to that poin, the team still led 6-0 because of its great defense, which sparked the offense into quick strike mode.
Against the run, the Patriots were stout as they only allowed 47 yards on the ground on 9 carries in the first half and then just 45 yards on 11 second half attempts. In the first half, 23 of those yards came on a single run when Markus Kuhn was contained inside and Jonathan Freeny failed to prevent James Stewart from bouncing outside of him. Otherwise, they completely stifled the Panther ground attack and forced Newton to beat him with his arm. For the most part the Patriots pass rush did an excellent job of keeping The-Self-Proclaimed Superman in the pocket. Linemen Long and Flowers had standout performances by both pursuing Newton and containing him in the pocket. On Flowers' sack, Long stood his ground on Newton's right to make sure he could not escape in that direction. Flowers swallowed Newton whole with a strong tackle.
The solid run defense had many contributors. Besides Long and Flowers, other notables included defensive tackles Malcolm Brown and rookie Vincent Valentine, who provided his best effort of the preseason by clogging the inside against the run, as well as providing a decent pass rush. He looks like a player that could be part of the regular interior rotation . . . probably at the expense of Terrance Knighton. Of course, linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower were all over the field as usual delivering punishing hits when appropriate.
Flowers again was involved when the Patriots stalled a Panther drive after he teamed with safety Pat Chung to stuff Stewart for a loss on 2nd and 10 to set up 3rd and 11. On his only run of the day, Newton escaped to his right after Johnson was double teamed inside. Collins made an outstanding hustle play to run the quarterback down 2 yards shy of the sticks. Instead of a 1st down at midfield, Carolina faced a 4th and 2 and didn't convert.
In another example of complimentary football, it only took the Patriots one play to get into field goal range as Brady hit the enigmatic Aaron Dobson over the middle for 37 yards. They converted the kick on this drive awarding the defense for their effort with 3 points.
As we saw during the stretch last year, the offense will not always fire on all cylinders. The Panthers have one of the better defenses in the league, led by linebacker stars Luke Kuechly and Davis (who was the Panthers' best player on Friday). Jimmy G struggled against his opponent and besides 2 long passes, Brady wasn't any better (Garoppolo got heavy criticism for throwing a near pick in the red zone after Kuechly uncharacteristically dropped the pass. Brady threw a poor pass to Martellus Bennett into the arms of safety Kurt Coleman but he dropped it as well). Against strong defenses on the road, the offense may struggle, thereby forcing them to play the field position game and excel at complimentary football in order to eke out low-scoring wins. It will be surprising if the Pats offense doesn't struggle vs. Arizona in 2 weeks. However, if the defense plays with harmony and discipline like they did last Friday, the result could be a big victory on the road to start the season. And it shouldn't require a Superman-like effort at quarterback to seal the victory. Get it?
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