One of the interesting questions of the early part of this season is “What is the problem with Cam Newton?” Cam is in his third season and is undoubtedly struggling. His bulk numbers are not good so far this season:
- Attempts: 127
- Completion%: 57.5
- Interceptions: 5
- Interception%: 3.9
- Yards/Attempt: 7.0
- ANY/A: 4.67
- Sack%: 10.6
All of those numbers are worse than his past two seasons. The two eye-popping stats are Cam’s ANY/A and sack%. ANY/A is a statistic that includes a QB’s pass yards, sack yards, touchdowns, and interceptions, as well as the number of pass attempts and number of times sacked. It’s a stat meant to measure overall performance by a QB, and it’s a good starting point for looking at how a quarterback is performing. Cam’s ANY/A is subpar and a significant decline from his first two seasons.
Onto the concerns: Cam’s biggest problem right now is taking sacks. He has been sacked 15 times already this season, after only four games. Yes, mobile quarterbacks are always going to take more sacks than pocket-passing QBs. But Cam’s 10.6% is more than 50% higher than what he finished 2012 with (6.9%). What’s very unusual about this is that the offensive line has actually played fairly well. Jordan Gross has allowed 3 sacks, but overall he has been playing like the Pro Bowler he is expected to be. Ryan Kalil has had an argument for being a top center in the league over the past 3 seasons. Byron Bell has played well from his right tackle position. Losing their starting LG, Amini Silatolu, hurts, but Travelle Wharton has played about as good as he can, leaving only their RG Chris Scott as someone who has struggled. The point is, Cam’s sack % can’t be blamed on his offensive line.
The next step is to look at Carolina’s WR’s. (We could check out how the RBs and TE’s have looked in their pass protection, but what I’ve seen on film, there is nothing there that concerns me.) So let’s take a look at how the WR’s did against a very tough Arizona Cardinals secondary. I like watching the Cardinals as opposed to the Seahawks, as we will see more man coverages from Arizona, and overall, I think the talent in the Cardinals defensive backfield is comparable to Seattle’s, but Arizona plays a tougher scheme for quarterbacks to read, as opposed to the cover-3 that Pete Carroll likes to run. Onto the tape:
First play. We see the Cards are in their single-high safety look. They play a lot of man coverage, and if they do run cover-2 or cover-3 zone, it’ll be out of the single high look. But mostly, they play with a deep safety and man coverage underneath. I have picked both man and zone plays to look at, though, as the important thing here for a QB is reading the coverage pre-snap. In this spot, we see a press corner at the top, and two players playing quite far off on the bottom. The near side look can give us the idea that this may be zone coverage due to the cushion given the WRs, very possibly a cover-3.
And we see a very convoluted cover-3 look. But looking at this picture, we see Cam has two clear options to throw the ball. Both are covered decently well, with our player circled in yellow potentially getting leverage and having the possibility to make a big play. Meanwhile, our player circled in Carolina Blue is sitting in his route with the Cardinals defender bearing down on him. Which would you choose?
Cam chose the player in blue. It’s not a choice I’d necessarily criticize, but seeing it does make me perk up a bit and wonder why this wasn’t a good time to take a shot at our player in yellow.
OK, so this time we are seeing that single-high look again. And off the snap, we see a cover-3 look forming from the secondary. Panthers look like they are in a max-protect formation, with only three players going out on routes at the snap.
So a three-man route combination is one that makes it hard to find openings in the defense. But in this instance, we again see the Panthers beating the Cards zone (maybe this is why zone isn’t their preferred defense, but that is for another time). And yet again, Cam has the TE option or the WR option on this play. The TE is in yellow and WR in blue. Which player looks more open and has big play potential? Clearly, it’s his TE. In case you are unfamiliar with the Panthers, that TE is Greg Olsen, a good receiver who runs crisp routes and catches at a high rate; he graded out extremely well as a pass catcher last season.
As we see, the pass went to the WR, who even after catching and running forward is still 10 yards short of where Olsen is at this moment. Even at this point, Olsen is extremely wide open. Had he been hit in stride, we’d be looking at a very large play, potentially a touchdown.
On this play, we see single-high coverage pushed to the middle of the field, leaving the top CB (Patrick Peterson) alone in coverage. I circled two Arizona linebackers, as they will be coming on blitzes up the middle. If the QB reads this correctly, he will typically throw to his “hot” route.
Well, the blitz is on, and Cam has just hit his last step in his drop. In blue, we have our WR running a flat route over the middle. With no linebacker in this area, this is almost the perfect route for the situation (the only thing possibly better would be a slant, but it’s hard to tell how the Cards would have played that). This may be a little tougher to throw than it looks in the still image, as Cam’s passing lane could be impaired by the blitzing LBs. With that said, that is no doubt where the ball should go and Cam needs to get it there. Instead, he wilts away and takes a sack without ever attempting the pass.
This is a “quarters” look pre-snap: a cover-4 look where each DB will have a quarter of the field to defend. The Panthers are in a very tight formation, so it is unlikely that this is the actual defensive call. The Cardinals are likely trying to hide their actual coverage.
We end up seeing man coverage with some blitzing linebackers. Cam rolls away from the pressure, and on the play, he has a receiver wide open running to the flat. That receiver is the second TE, rather than one of the team’s regular pass-catchers, but it doesn’t matter: I still want my QB to dump this ball off in this spot. Instead, Cam just takes off running.
So in the last two plays, we have first seen Cam not adjust to the hot route despite having a WR run free, and then, he keeps the ball instead of dumping it off. His high sack percentage this season is becoming a bit more clear for me after watching these two plays.
The last play we will look at is Cam Newton’s interception to Patrick Peterson, which you likely caught in an update while watching the Denver-Dallas game. Let’s take a look at the entirety of the play. Again, we see single high coverage with press man from Patrick Peterson, as well as off coverage on the near side. This is a coverage that the Cardinals feel comfortable in. This time, the safety fakes over to help with Steve Smith pre-snap, but in this frame we catch him shuffling more to the middle of the field at the snap. This was a decoy for Cam, and he reads that correctly.
So with one-on-one coverage with his best receiver, Cam decides to take the chance here, even though one of the top corners in the game was covering Steve Smith. This still is just about at the time Cam releases the ball. Smith is in yellow, Cam’s other options are in blue, and in red is a receiver on a route who very rarely, if ever, is going to see the ball thrown his way he. Is throwing the fade route the correct play here? It’s close. Cam’s decision making here isn’t all that bad. Both other receivers are covered well, and Cam would have to throw them open, just as much as he would Steve Smith. But Smith has the big play potential here, and taking a shot in this spot isn’t a bad one in man-to-man coverage. Just throw the ball to the pylon and let Smith run through the route.
Instead, the ball is thrown short and up for grabs. Patrick Peterson gets well up there to intercept the pass and got a lot of praise for tremendous coverage on the play. And sure, he wasn’t beaten, nor was there really a big risk of a touchdown on this play. But this interception isn’t really a great play; it happens because of a lazily thrown pass that was nowhere near its intended WR. Smith can’t even be blamed for not making the tackle, as the ball was so underthrown that his route basically takes him out of the play. (Plus, even with Smith’s acceleration, Patrick Peterson is at this point the better athlete.) The decision to throw the pass was questionable, but the execution was terrible.
So to elaborate on the sack problem: Clearly, the offensive line is playing well. Any pressure that Cam is feeling is coming from blitz packages, in which the defense is sending more rushers can be protected by the offensive line. Cam’s decision making post-snap seems to be the issue right now. He’s taking bad sacks and running at times he should be throwing the ball. These are the easiest ways to hurt yourself and the team. Cam’s ability to run is terrific, and scrambling is better than taking a sack. But scrambling is not the best option when you have an open receiver in front of you.
So what is my conclusion? Cam does make some nice passes in the game and does hit a deep pass or two. I also understand not always chucking it deep; that’s what Rex Grossman did and it only worked for a few weeks. (Sure, those weeks were at critical times in the season and put him in the Super Bowl on the back of an elite defense, but I digress.) The fact that Cam is even willing to make these passes puts him at a level well above a quarterback like Sam Bradford, who seems afraid to attack downfield. The willingness to throw deep and “throw open” a receiver, so to speak, is something all the best QBs have. The question is just a matter of when to throw it. Play 1 isn’t a huge negative for Cam. Play 2 to me is a big red flag. Play 3 is an even bigger one, where the QB hangs onto the ball far too long. And Play 4 is the biggest negative of all, as instead of dumping the ball off, Cam willingly runs and takes an unnecessary hit for about the same amount of yardage– or less– than what he would have gotten with a dump-off pass to a safety valve. Play 5 was just a poor pass that got picked off by a corner who is too good to let those kind of mistakes slide.
I don’t think Cam is in full regression or that the Panthers need to be immediately concerned about finding another franchise quarterback. But I am concerned about his decisions to hang onto the ball or throw the easy route. Is that a coaching philosophy? Is he being told to not take chances, and to instead be safe with the ball because the team can’t afford interceptions? If so, why the deep pass to Steve Smith? It’s puzzling, to say the least. I do not have much faith in the Panthers coaching staff, especially with Rob Chudzinski now in Cleveland. Going forward, I’d watch the situations in which Cam decides to take his chances downfield. Are they against zone coverage or man to man? Where is the safety when he does throw it deep? I believe if Cam reads zone, he is immediately looking for the shorter, safer pass, which leads me to believe he is not fully comfortable throwing into that coverage. Whereas Cam can see man coverage on the snap, and can pre-determine where the ball is going. (This is not necessarily a bad thing; I would just say that Cam trusts his pre-snap read more in those cases.) I do expect Cam to rebound from this start– but I think his ceiling is constricted by being on a team whose coaching staff so far has not earned the benefit of the doubt regarding his development.