Film Review: Newton provides blockers strength in numbers in power run game

JAIME CAMPOS/Staff photoNew England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton runs through the line for a gain during Sunday's game against the Miami Dolphins.

Football is an immensely complicated game, but at its core the secret to success on offense is remarkably simple. If you can block all of the defenders in front of you, then the defense will have a hard time stopping you.

That’s obviously a lot easier said than done, but if you’re looking to run the ball with any meaningful success, then any opportunity to get a leg up in the blocking game will be crucial.

Last year we saw what happens when you don’t block well. The Patriots famously struggled to convert in crucial short-yardage situations, struggles that were exacerbated by injuries on the offensive line and at fullback. Yet if Sunday’s game film is any indication, the Patriots have made significant strides and may now have one of the most formidable power rushing offenses in the league.

Cam Newton is the obvious difference-maker, but his impact can be felt far beyond just his ability to run.

Leveling the playing field on the line

In a typical short-yardage scenario, the offense will often be at a two-man disadvantage when it comes to accounting for incoming defenders. Let’s say you want to hand the ball off to the running back, if you do then the quarterback won’t be able to block, and the running back obviously isn’t blocking either. That means at least two defenders won’t be accounted for and could conceivably make a play.

But what if you don’t need to hand the ball off to a running back? One of the benefits of having a player like Newton is he’s big enough and fast enough to get the job done himself, giving you an extra blocker while leaving the defense just one unblocked player to try and bring Newton down himself. We saw this most clearly Sunday on the 4th and 1 conversion near the goal line with New England hanging on to a 14-11 lead with 6:08 to play.

New England lined up with nine blockers on the line, including two eligible linemen (Mike Onwenu and Justin Herron) and both tight ends (Ryan Izzo and Devin Asiasi), plus fullback Jakob Johnson in the backfield. Johnson motioned to Newton’s left, and on the snap Onwenu, Izzo and Johnson each had to seal off their respective men to clear a path for Newton. They all did so easily, leaving only former Patriot linebacker Elandon Roberts to come across the far side to bring down Newton. By the time he got there, it was already too late.

Heavy personnel pays off

Beyond Newton’s presence, that 4th and 1 play also showed how far the Patriots have come shoring up other blocking positions. Last year in a similar spot New England was often forced to field Roberts at fullback and Matthew Slater as a blocking tight end. Meanwhile the offensive line itself was depleted, with center David Andrews out for the year and Ieft tackle Isaiah Wynn battling injuries throughout as well.

Now, not only is the line itself in good shape, but the Patriots have a deep well of proper blockers who can be used in jumbo packages. The rookie Onwenu played a particularly big role, appearing as an eligible lineman on six plays which resulted in four first downs, a touchdown, and a seven-yard gain on the first play of the game.

The same “super jumbo” formation used on the 4th and 1 play was also deployed a second time on the last competitive play of the game. Needing a first down to clinch the win and facing a 2nd and 11, Newton ran up the left side again, with Johnson, Izzo, Onwenu and a pulling Shaq Mason clearing a path all the way to the line to gain. New England was able to kneel the ball afterwards and that was that.

Newton keeps them guessing 

Beyond his ability to handle business in the running game, Newton also provides an element of unpredictability that keeps opposing defenses on their toes.

Over the course of the game New England ran 11 read option plays, which is when the quarterback has the choice to either hand the ball off or keep it and run himself. Newton kept the ball on six of those plays for 24 yards, and he handed it off five times for an additional 29 yards. At one point there was also a traditional, college-style option pitch to James White for a seven-yard gain.

As for the passing game, Newton was able to utilize play action to devastating effect. With the Dolphins frequently playing the run, Newton was able to go 7 for 8 with a sack on nine play action attempts. The one incompletion was his first pass of the game to Julian Edelman, which was right on the money but broken up by a bit hit from Bobby McCain. The sack came right afterwards when the Patriots misread the Dolphins’ alignment, resulting in Joe Thuney pulling on a designed run to the right while leaving linebacker Jerome Baker a wide open lane to blow up the play.

That’s the sort of miscommunication that no amount of blockers can overcome, but if that’s the worst New England has to clean up after such a strange preseason then the Patriots are in good shape.

Mac Cerullo can be reached at mcerullo@newburyportnews.com. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo.

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