FOXBORO -- This should be a “get right” game for the Patriots defense Sunday against visiting Carolina. The Panthers have scored just 45 points through the first three weeks of the season, and everyone - from their head coach to their quarterback to the vendor in section 247 - knows it’s just doesn’t look right because it isn’t right.
Just a couple seasons removed from being the NFL’s MVP, Cam Newton is hitting on 61.4% of his passes. That would come awfully close to matching his career best of 61.7 in 2013. However, the explosive plays are lacking, both through the air but just as notably, on the ground. Newton is living in what Ron Rivera called a “new reality." Surely, that’s best for the quarterback’s long-termm future, but in the present, it’s really sucking the life out of an offense that was all Cam, all the time.
Just look at what Deshaun Watson did to the Pats “D” several days ago. The rookie - who looked lost the week prior - was a handful, throwing for over 300 yards, rushing for 41 and keeping a bunch of plays alive with those scrambling skills. Newton is capable of the same - if not a hell of a lot more based on his size and strength.
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“That’s the tough part,” said cornerback Eric Rowe. “You’re covering and then you look back and you see Cam scrambling. We all know he is threat to run the ball.”
That puts the defender in space in a tough spot: attack the QB or stay patient and stay on your receiver or assignment.
“I could be instinctive like ‘he’s coming your way, I’ve got to stop him’ but not just yet because - especially in the field of play - even I forget where the line of scrimmage is,” said Rowe. “So you know what I do is I stay back long enough till i know for sure he’s past because if I drop my coverage and he throws it over me, that’s on me.”
That’s exactly what happened to Trey Flowers Sunday against Watson. He dropped back into coverage late in the 4th quarter, attempting to confuse the rookie with a different look. Watson somehow escaped the clutches of 4 defenders, remarkably emerging from the crowded pocket. He stayed flush with the line of scrimmage but Flowers got caught in no man’s land, eventually coming forward. It was then Watson flipped a ball over the defensive end’s head into that vacated zone. The result was a 31-yard catch and run by D’Onta Freeman.
“It was just about awareness, finishing and focusing on the task,” admitted Flowers today. “You have to understand that guys are going to break the pocket, and act accordingly. If you’re covering, you have to plaster the receivers and yeah, it’s a zone, but you gotta mess with receivers and challenge ‘em man to man.”
Flowers said the challenge this week is slightly different though because while Watson is a wiry 220 pounds or so, Newton is listed at 245 and has been known to weigh in the 260s.
“You just got to be physical with him, knowing that just because he’s big, he can also run fast and is very agile,” he said. “You gotta break down and get him down when you have the opportunity.”
And there have been far too many “or else” moments for this Patriots defense. So while the belief is they’ll fix what ails them, or at least make it look a hell of a lot better than it has, there isn’t an overwhelming sense of confidence that’s coming from the players. And confidence is critical in Bill Belichick’s eyes.
“Things that we're confident in we do more aggressively, we do quicker, we do with probably better overall execution than things we're not confident in, that we maybe have to wait and have that little bit of hesitation to make sure that something’s right or make sure you’re doing the right things,” he said earlier this week. “It’s a fine line there between confidence and overconfidence and taking it for granted, as opposed to just being right in that sweet spot of having an edge, having confidence, being alert and aggressive, but not too far that way that if something happens a little bit differently that you're caught off-guard. We just try to find that sweet spot in there for it.
Players have been asked that this week, about finding the “sweet spot” or gelling. The answers hardly flow with passion and belief, although to be fair, sometimes - not always - that’s just the way the organization wants their players to speak
“We’re working to get better every day,” said Kyle Van Noy.
“It’s a process each and every day,” added Elandon Roberts.
“One of the things that you’re going through in September is a lot of guys finding their role, getting a fit in," said Flowers. “Keep getting better. That’s the goal.”
Maybe the Pats are just baiting us, baiting the Panthers. Or maybe those players that have been around long enough aren’t seeing the types of consistency in play and approach. But Sunday is a real opportunity to make it happen, and keep a struggling offense down. “Get right” or get ready for another week of questions wondering why.