PATS REPORTER

Perry: Can McDaniels' wrinkles help Cam reverse fortune vs. Seattle?

PATS REPORTER

FOXBORO -- The Patriots would love it if history repeated itself. In some ways. But not in others. Definitely not in others.

Confused?

Bill Belichick's club finds itself in a fascinating spot as it prepares to head to Seattle for a Sunday night matchup with Pete Carroll, Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner -- the "big three," according to Belichick -- and the Seahawks.

On the one hand, the Patriots have had loads of success against Seattle-style defenses over the course of the last decade or so: the Chargers in the Divisional Round two years ago, the Falcons in Super Bowl LI, the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX.

On the other hand, their new quarterback Cam Newton has had more than his share of issues with Carroll's ball-hawking zone scheme over the course of his career. In six regular-season games -- more than any other non-NFC South opponent -- he's won just one game. He's completed 58 percent of his passes, with a 5-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 6.7 yards-per-attempt figure.

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In two playoff games, he's fared better, completing 67 percent. But he still has a pedestrian 3-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio in those games and a 7.0 yards-per-attempt number.

"I don’t think people understand, we played Seattle in Carolina like they were a division game," Newton said this week. "We played them a lot . . . It was a team that we looked forward to playing, measuring our toughness and where our team was, and this week isn’t going to be any different.

"It’s simple, they know who they are, they know what they want to do, and they’re not going to conform or change for nobody. When you’ve got a method or mentality like that, it’s hard to lose."

 

The Patriots have the offensive concepts to make life hard on Seattle, though. They've beat up on Cover 3 defenses with running backs in the passing game -- think back to Shane Vereen and James White's Super Bowl performances in early 2015 and 2017, respectively. They've used their tight ends and slot receivers to stress single-high safeties. They've taken advantage of aggressive one-gapping fronts.

Plus this Seattle defense is fresh off ranking 28th against the run and 22nd in points allowed in 2019. Even with talented safety Jamal Adams added into the mix, they allowed Matt Ryan and the Falcons to rack up 450 yards passing and 8.3 yards per attempt in Week 1.

This Patriots offense, though, is different than the one Tom Brady ran for years against Carroll and his acolytes. Can they still turn to those anti-Cover 3 concepts with a new quarterback behind center?

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Definitely.

We took a deep dive into some of the types of plays the Patriots have used to exploit Carroll's scheme -- and others like it as it has spread throughout the NFL -- and Newton has had success at times with those same concepts in Carolina.

HAVE AT IT, HOSS

With a single-high safety in the middle of the field -- the role made famous by Earl Thomas during the Legion of Boom days -- there are opportunities for offenses to put that player in a bind. If McDaniels feels he has the weapons to stress the seams of the defense vertically, that could be one method for the Patriots to try to pick up chunk gains.

Running four verticals down the field could accomplish that feat, as could a Patriots staple called "HOSS," which helped them win Super Bowl LIII. One example of "HOSS" -- hitches outside, seams inside -- is shown above, with Brandon LaFell gashing the Ravens' Cover 3 defense as one of two seam-runners.

Newton's beaten the Seahawks in the past by exploiting the seam soft spot in Seattle's Cover 3, but he did it with proven middle-of-the-field weapon Greg Olsen. This weekend, that role might have to be taken on by tight ends Ryan Izzo or Devin Asiasi for the Patriots.

KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE SCREEN

A simple slip screen is another Patriots staple that could figure prominently into Sunday night's plan. It worked wonders in the video above, taking advantage of Philadelphia's single-high coverage and aggressive front in Super Bowl LII.

Seattle uses a one-gapping defensive line as part of its scheme, allowing defenders to get up the field with speed to disrupt plays before they can get off the ground. The Patriots hardly used their screen game against Miami so rolling with slip screens -- like the one shown above that Newton called to rip Seattle's defense in 2018 -- could catch the Seahawks off-guard.

 

WHEELING AND DEALING

Another well-regarded Cover 3-beater? A concept called "post-wheel." This is in McDaniels' bag as well. He broke it out against the Seattle-style Jaguars defense in the AFC title game in 2017 when the Patriots needed a fourth-down conversion in the first quarter.

Danny Amendola received a strong pick from White at the line and streaked up into open space when Brandin Cooks attracted the corner responsible for the deep third of the field. Twenty-yard pickup.

The Panthers ran post-wheel with Newton, too. And even when it didn't work, it worked.

In the video above, Olsen ran a wheel route into what Carolina thought might be a vacated area. It wasn't. The Seahawks had it covered. But with Seattle's free safety hovering toward the strong side of the formation, DJ Moore was able to run with a full head of steam behind Bobby Wagner at the linebacker level for an explosive completion.

YANKEE A DANDY

The Patriots have also long had the ability to run a simple two-man route combination to try to strain Cover 3 defensive backs.

Back in 2018, against the Jets and their Cover 3 defense, McDaniels sent Cordarelle Patterson on a deep post while Chris Hogan sprinted across the field on a deep over route. That concept, known as "Yankee," can work well against Seattle defenses. If both a corner and a free safety go with the post route -- two players tracking one -- that should leave the over route receiver with all kinds of space to operate.

Newton shows in the video above that he has the ability to run the exact same play installed in New England.

With many of these play-calls depending on speed in the deep part of the field to make defensive backs make a choice, receiver Damiere Byrd could end up being key to the Patriots game plan Sunday. As the only obvious speed option for McDaniels, even if Byrd doesn't get the football he may be asked to carry coverage and open things up underneath for his teammates.

As is the case with all of these plays, there is some question as to who will fill which roles from a pass-catching standpoint. But Newton certainly has experience running the same types of concepts the Patriots would have called for Brady against a Carroll-led defense. That might mean a sigh of relief or two this week for Newton, as he acknowledged Wednesday that the learning process in New England has been anything but a walk in the park.

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"It’s still a learning process," Newton said. "I’m leaving here to go try and master it as much as possible leading up to Sunday, it makes no difference, for me I always have to have that conscience to keep getting better. This is a 20-year-in-the-making offense, not just a coach that just came here or someone who just came here. They’ve been building for years now, so it’s up for me to catch up as much as possible each and every day.

 

"Josh has helped me so much, the quarterbacks have helped me so much, [quarterbacks coach] Jedd [Fisch] has helped me so much throughout this whole process, so it’s up to me to keep learning."

SECRET WEAPON?

Fisch may end up a valuable sounding board for the Patriots as they game plan. Not only this week, but all season. This is the first of four NFC West matchups the Patriots will face this year, and Fisch is coming off two years with the LA Rams as an offensive assistant. Plus, as far as this week is concerned, back in 2010, he was Carroll's quarterbacks coach in Seattle. In 2013 and 2014 he worked under Gus Bradley.

He's plenty familiar with what Newton's about to face schematically this weekend.

Having seen Seattle's defense four times over the last two years, having seen San Francisco's Seattle-style defense four more times in that same timeframe, and seeing Cover 3 looks in practice for several years throughout his coaching career, Fisch may have some fresh ideas to help Newton turn around his career regular-season numbers against Carroll.

"Really the No. 1 reason it has survived is it’s sound," Fisch said this week. "It's good, sound fundamental football where they take care of all their gaps and zone responsibilities and they mix in different coverages when they need to. They know their weaknesses and they know their strengths, so when you know your own weaknesses of your system, then you can practice against that every day and you can challenge your guys to continue to get better when you know when you’re vulnerable."

WRINKLES FOR A POLAR OPPOSITE

McDaniels put it simply in a back-and-forth with reporters this week: The Patriots will square off with a defense that is the polar opposite of the one they just saw in Week 1.

The Dolphins play man. The Seahawks play zone. The Dolphins want to two-gap up front. The Seahawks are a penetrating front. The Dolphins blitzed as the Patriots do, typically with their linebackers. The Seahawks just sent newly-acquired safety Jamal Adams as a pass-rusher 11 times (he recorded four pressures) against the Falcons in Week 1.

"There's probably not a bigger discrepancy between two defenses," McDaniels said, "than the ones we're playing to start the year."

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Potent as the Patriots rushing attack was versus Miami, the change in opponent scheme could be a blessing in disguise. As someone who values the element of surprise, McDaniels will be encouraged to -- required to, in fact -- run different types of plays than the ones he ran in Week 1 to find success for a second straight game.

"I don't know that any one thing, if you do it over and over and over, is sustainable in our league," McDaniels explained. "The coaches and the players each week are too good. I've called 60 passes. Believe me, I don't want to live in that world too long or you're going to get in trouble, whether it's injuries, or the success you have is going to deteriorate, or too much of this or that, depending on what it is, and you're going to become too predictable."

 

REVERSAL OF FORTUNE

Luckily for McDaniels and his offense, even if he wants to trot out plays that are relatively similar to the ones that proved to be efficient last week -- play-action passes, quarterback sweeps, power read and zone read runs, for example -- there are all kinds of wrinkles he can call for that will look like the plays the Seahawks saw on tape from Week 1 . . . only different.

The Panthers, with their multi-layered Newton-led rushing attack, can provide a blueprint of sorts for McDaniels if he wants to get tricky. He can use power-read formations and actions to start plays, only to send a receiver back in the opposite direction for a reverse -- as Byrd, then a member of the Panthers, did to the Patriots back in 2017 in the video above.

And there are counters to the counters, if McDaniels wants them. If teams try to sniff out a gadget play when Newton hands off, or if they start to over-play Newton keepers, there are options for trickery when Newton holds onto the ball as well. See above.

SHOOTERS SHOOT

Breaking out the "Pistol" would also help McDaniels be less predictable in Week 2. The Patriots typically used a back alongside Newton in the shotgun formation last week. With the Pistol, a back would be behind Newton in the shotgun, leaving space for another back (or two) to stand alongside the quarterback.

With the Pistol in play, a back has the ability to attack either side of the line of scrimmage from a read-option standpoint. (When aligned to Newton's side, a back typically will go toward the opposite side of the line from where he's set up on read-option plays.) That in and of itself provides a layer of flexibility for McDaniels and uncertainty for defenses. But as you can see above, the Pistol also gives an offense an opportunity to run the triple option.

Newton could hand off on a read-option play, he could keep it, or he could pitch it to the back sprinting from his Pistol alignment.

QUAD FLEX

If McDaniels wanted to get really creative, he could add a few more wrinkles to one particular play he showed in Week 1.

Against Miami, Newton pitched to White in the fourth quarter for a short gain with the type of option play you might see at your local high school on a Friday night. In the Panthers play above, they added an at-the-snap "missile" motion element to that type of play as well as a trailing shovel-pass option.

One play. Four possibilities.

Maybe that's one changeup too many for Week 2. But when McDaniels and the Patriots head to Seattle, expect a mix of tried-and-true Patriots Cover 3-beaters with some wrinkles to Newton-centric run plays unveiled in Week 1.

 

The resulting concoction just might be enough to give Carroll and the Seahawks defense fits.