How Cam Newton went undefeated against Bill Belichick in Carolina

OUT OF REACH: Deatrich Wise can’t quite bring down Cam Newton during the Patriots’ 33-30 loss to the Panthers yesterday.
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It’s no secret Bill Belichick has a habit of targeting and acquiring players who have tormented his teams in the past.

Cam Newton may be the best example of this yet.

Newton is the only active quarterback with a spotless record against Belichick over multiple starts, having diced the Patriots previously in 2013 and 2017. In those meetings, Newton threw six passing touchdowns to one interception and completed 72% of his throws at 9.2 yards per attempt for a 128.2 passer rating. By 2017, Belichick had prepared for Newton in almost a half-dozen games, including their preseason battles.

But he still couldn’t stop Superman. That is until the market brought Newton back down to Earth so Belichick could sign him last month.

After careful film study of their previous meetings, here’s how Newton went from puzzle to Patriot.

Beating the blitz

Thought the numbers above were impressive? Check these out.

In their head-to-head meetings, Newton went 15-of-17 for 202 yards and three touchdowns against Belichick’s blitzes, picking up 10 first downs along the way. Posting those passing numbers is difficult enough against air, let alone one of the greatest defensive coaches of all time.

In the first game, the Pats alternated between blitz pressure and two-high coverages on most first-half passing snaps to discourage Newton from uncorking his potent deep ball. Newton’s answer to the first blitz he saw was dropping a 42-yard dime against then-Pro Bowl corner Aqib Talib. Later, grasping the Pats’ long-standing tendency to send extra rushers inside the red zone, he scored the game’s first touchdown on a perfect slant throw versus pressure. Six snaps after that, Newton scrambled for 30 yards versus another blitz to set up a go-ahead field goal.

Before the Patriots pulled back their pressure midway through the second half, Newton completed passes against the first three blitzes he faced after intermission. He couldn’t be bothered.

In 2017, the Pats played it cool by sending extra rushers just once over their first three defensive series. That blitz, an uncommon zone pressure from New England, yielded an easy 25-yard completion. On Carolina’s next drive, Newton was blitzed three times. The results?

One scramble, a 43-yard completion on third down and a 10-yard touchdown pass with 0:26 on the clock.

The Patriots never blitzed again on third down, but it didn’t matter. In the second half, Newton fired a 16-yard touchdown and connected on three easy throws against pressure.

Strangely, these type of performances have been anomalies for Newton, who’s played appreciably worse when blitzed ever since his 2015 MVP campaign. In that light, it’s difficult to project these results for his 2020 season. Although, the Pats’ offensive line should be the best pass-protecting line Newton’s ever played behind.

If they have his back against the blitz, perhaps he can revert to some degree of his 2015 form.

Running to daylight

To call Newton a “scrambling quarterback” would be a misnomer. He prefers to throw from the pocket, will hang in against pressure and most of his rushing yards are born from designed runs. Yes, Newton’s a dual-threat. No, he’s not a runner disguised as a passer.

In their 2013 battle, the majority of Newton’s seven rushes were scrambles. And they were quietly devastating.

Three of his unplanned runs helped extend drives that produced 17 of the Panthers’ 24 points in a close victory. Newton was selective and effective, gaining 62 total yards on seven runs that kept the Pats defense off-balance.

Four years later, Newton inflicted most his pain on designed runs. He converted two first downs and set up Carolina’s game-winning field goal with consecutive rushes up the middle. Newton also scored the Panthers’ final touchdown on a punishing inside run, the type only he could survive and score among active quarterbacks.

In total, Newton averaged more than seven yards per rush against Belichick and achieved first downs on an insane 60% of those rushes. He’s incredibly hard to tackle, whether he’s running on schedule or not. The best plan against Newton the rusher is to contain — and pray.

Patience

In addition to the plays Newton made, it was mistakes he avoided that pushed the Panthers to victory. Newton committed only one turnover, never fumbled and threw only three other passes that could have resulted in interceptions.

Newton did force deep passes in the first quarter of each game, but largely resisted the temptation to fire into unfavorable looks. He remained selectively aggressive, threading several downfield needles that stressed the Pats secondary. Newton also took hits on multiple deep completions, waiting as long as he could before unloading an accurate pass.

As a runner, Newton’s reads were perfect. He ceded possession on 11 of 13 option runs, correctly recognizing the Patriots’ preferred technique against them that usually force an inside handoff. His only keeps were in 2017, when he gained one yard off a well-defended triple-option play and scored a 7-yard touchdown.

On the touchdown, Newton executed a play the Panthers had yet to call and sent Christian McCaffrey running off tackle after the snap. With most of the front seven eyeing McCaffrey, a running back who’d gained possession on most previous read-runs, Newton yanked the ball back, ran untouched for five yards and powered his way across the goal line. Newton remained patient with his run game and successfully struck at the most opportune time.

The Patriots can only hope they’ve now done the same, bringing aboard a former MVP who’s anxious for a career renaissance and ready to treat the rest of the league like he once did his new defensive teammates.