There is a chicken-or-the-egg question facing the Patriots at the moment.
Is their quarterback simply out of rhythm? Or are their receivers unable to help the quarterback get into rhythm because they're unable to get open?
There was evidence to suggest that both statements were true last weekend against the Broncos.
Cam Newton struggled to see openings before they happened, and he missed throws that were open. Patriots receivers were at times not seeing things the way Newton saw them, and they were unable to consistently exploit coverages sent their way by a middling pass defense.
Mix in a makeshift offensive line that dealt with multiple injuries and the results were ugly. Newton completed 17 of his 25 attempts for 157 yards (a 6.3 yards-per-attempt figure), no touchdowns and two picks.
But when you see some of the advanced numbers -- both from the Broncos game and the season overall -- there are some passing-game trends developing the Patriots must find troubling.
The 2020 Patriots are, of course, an offense that depends on successfully running the football in order to be efficient. And when they run the football, there are few teams in the league that are better. According to Pro Football Focus' Seth Galina -- who wrote a detailed piece on the issues facing the Patriots passing game at the moment -- New England is third in the NFL in expected points added per rushing attempt.
Yet they rank just 25th in EPA per play because they rank 28th in EPA per pass play. Even an elite rushing attack, the numbers would suggest, can't help buoy a good offense alone.
And with the Patriots passing game in the state that it's in -- they have one game in which they've thrown for more than 165 yards -- opponents seem to believe they can devote resources to stopping the run without worrying about how that'll leave them vulnerable through the air.
It's become apparent that defenses are frequently deploying single-high safety defenses when facing Newton. Dropping an additional defender to the second level with just one safety deep can serve two purposes: guarding against the run while also robbing short-to-intermediate routes upon which the Patriots lean so frequently. (Only Drew Brees and Jimmy Garoppolo have fewer air yards per attempt this season than Newton's 6.3, per The Athletic's Ben Baldwin.)
Just four teams in the NFL see two-high safety coverages less often than the Patriots, per PFF, and the Patriots rank just 30th in the NFL in EPA per pass attempt against single-high looks. Broncos coach Vic Fangio threw single-high coverages at Newton on 20 of his 25 pass attempts Sunday, with Newton going just 12-for-20 for 96 yards and two picks. That resulted in a 4.8 yards per attempt number on those plays and a quarterback rating of 32.5.
Bill Belichick has indicated lately that defenses are defending designed run plays for Newton that could potentially open up other types of plays for his offense. Asked Tuesday if defending Newton's legs has opened up opportunities for his team through the air, Belichick said, "Well, we’ll see. I mean, it’s a little bit of a week-to-week question. Cam didn’t play against Kansas City and then last week was a different kind of week, so we’ll see how it goes going forward."
Even if those openings are there, or if they emerge, do the Patriots have enough in terms of talent around Newton to exploit them? Or does Newton simply have to trust his pass-catchers to make plays in contested situations?
Newton's Week 3 grade in our Report Card suffered because he took unnecessary risks against the Raiders. Against Denver, he seemed to be opting to hold onto the football rather than risk throwing into tight coverage. Maybe that change in approach is explained away by Newton not being able to practice for about two weeks leading up to the game. Maybe it was just an over-correction from mistakes he made in Week 3. Maybe he doesn't trust his receivers to make contested catches because they rank 23rd in contested catch rate this year, per PFF.
Josh McDaniels explained on Tuesday that in order to move the football through the air there's a risk-reward balance there that needs to be struck.
"A quarterback's job is to take care of the ball and try to get us into the end zone," McDaniels said. "You're certainly going to have to make some throws against tight coverage. That's the nature of the National Football League. At the same time you're weighing risks and rewards on a play-by-play basis. That's the quarterback's job.
"I think the more familiar you get with the players that you're playing with, the more comfortable that you get with the system that you're in, the more you feel like you have the ability to make those decisions and do the things necessary to win.
"Cam's always tried to do that. He works really hard at it. Our skill group works really hard at it. We know we need to improve in a lot of areas. There's a lot of things we saw on the film Sunday that we can get better at and we're excited about the opportunity to get to work on that.
"But there's no shortcut to that. It's just about work and repetition and creating really good habits and trust with each other so that you can go out there and do it under pressure."
There's certainly pressure on the Patriots passing game to do more right now. And until they prove they can punish single-high coverages, that defensive approach will very likely continue to be the foundation for the blueprint to defending a Newton-led attack.