The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cam Newton ran over the Dolphins. Can he and the Patriots keep it up?

New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton celebrates his rushing touchdown against the Miami Dolphins. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Placeholder while article actions load

The Cam Newton era got underway in Foxboro on Sunday and the 31-year-old former MVP did not disappoint. Newton led the New England Patriots offense with 15 carries for 75 yards and two rushing touchdowns, a four-yard scamper early in the second quarter and an 11-yard scoring run in the third. His 15 rush attempts were the most ever by a Patriots quarterback in a game and his rushing yardage was the most by a Patriots quarterback since 1977. The Patriots also ran the ball on two-thirds of their plays (42 out of 63) against the Miami Dolphins, the second highest rate ever under Bill Belichick, who became head coach of New England in 2000. Even for Newton, the running load was high. His 15 carries were the second-highest of his career and his 75 rushing yards rank 10th for him all time.

In addition to his rushing performance, Newton was an effective passer. He completed 15 of 19 passes for 155 yards and earned the fourth-highest passing grade for the Week from the game charters at Pro Football Focus. Newton’s 19 attempts were the fewest by a Patriots starting quarterback since Jacoby Brissett in Week 3 of the 2016 season and the fourth-fewest of Newton’s career since Week 7 of the 2013 season.

Tom Brady is 43 years old. The Buccaneers need to use him accordingly.

“He’s a baller. He brings energy,” teammate Julian Edelman told CBS when asked about Newton. “No. 1 made some incredible plays and we’re going to need that from him all year.”

The Week 1 emphasis on Newton’s running should become a focal point for opposing defenses going forward. And if teams can neutralize Newton’s ability to produce on the ground, it could make for some tough sledding this season. Since 2002, the first year the league expanded to 32 franchises, teams with less than 155 passing yards posted a win rate of 41 percent. Newton has a slightly better record in those situations (9-5, 64 percent win rate) but he managed an average of 60 rushing yards in the wins and 37 rushing yards in the losses. If his passing doesn’t pick up and he is held in check as a runner, New England might have to go back to the offensive drawing board.

It’s worth noting Newton and the Patriots benefited from a few factors on Sunday afternoon beyond their QB’s athleticism, including Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick throwing three interceptions. Teams are 660-83-2 over the past 18 years when the opposing quarterback throws three or more interceptions in a game. In addition, Miami’s defensive line is estimated to be the third-worst in 2020 with the fourth-worst set of linebackers per Pro Football Focus. Defenses will use their linebackers as a spy against dual-threat quarterbacks like Newton, leaving a vast amount of space open down field. If you don’t have enough talented players that can pick up the slack, you end up losing a lot of ground to a gifted player like Newton.

The challenge now will be duplicating this production against teams that both have tape on Newton in New England’s offense and a higher-rated defense than Miami’s. And the level of difficulty goes up immediately starting in Week 2 against the Seattle Seahawks.

Seattle earned PFF’s top spot for linebackers heading into this season. Bobby Wagner garnered the second-best overall grade in the league at the position over the past two seasons and made 35 stops against the run at or behind the line of scrimmage last year. Only Luke Kuechly (retired) and Zach Cunningham had more in 2019. Teammate and fellow linebacker K.J. Wright made 24 stops against the run (20th out of 57 linebackers) last season. Seattle also has what is expected to be the fifth-best defensive line, allowing for consistent pass pressure on Newton. Miami (15th best defensive line per PFF) pressured Newton just four times on Sunday.

Plus, Newton has scored 12 fewer points than expected (after taking into account the down, distance and field position of each play) per 100 rushing plays against Seattle’s head coach, Pete Carroll in his career, per data from TruMedia. Newton has scored 29 more points per 100 rushing plays against everyone else.

After Seattle, New England will face the Las Vegas Raiders (sixth-best linebackers) and another strong set of linebackers in Week 5 against the Denver Broncos (ninth) and Week 7 against their division rival, San Francisco 49ers (10th). Newton has only played one game against the 49ers with Kyle Shanahan as head coach but he rushed just six times for three yards and a fumble.

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh (Week 10 opponent), Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay (Week 14) and Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott (Week 16) have also had success containing Newton. Against those three coaches Newton has carried the ball 20 times for 84 yards, one touchdown and two fumbles.

Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniel spoke about the unusually high run total following the game, noting that teams never want to lean too far into either the running or passing game. And given his comments, it seems there may be a course correction coming.

“There’s many different ways to attack a defense, and having a quarterback run is just another added dimension that a lot of teams can’t have,” Newton said after the game. “Yet through it all, I have to make a conscientious decision each and every time I do run the ball to be smart. Not to get ahead of myself and trying to prove a point. As long as I run and take care of myself and get down when need be, then I feel like everything will be okay.”