Monday, December 2, 2013

QB Corner - Cam Newton (Carolina @ San Francisco)

Over a week ago, QB Corner examined the Week 10 Panthers @ 49ers game looking specifically at a young quarterback's development. That QB was the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick, but he was not the only nascent signal caller in the game. His opposition, Cam Newton, began his NFL career with much success and hoopla, but has since proven uneven as a passer and leader, only recently putting together an impressive series of wins. In this column, I will examine Cam's performance in the Panthers' win and see where his development stands in relation to Colin's.

First, statistics. This will look familiar (stats courtesy of Pro-Football Reference, all pro-rated for a 16-game season):

As per last time, Player A is Colin, B is 2013 Josh Freeman, C is Cam, and D is 2010 Josh Freeman. You'll notice two extra players at the bottom. Player E is hyper efficient, leading all QBs in passing numbers, but is a dismal runner. That guy is Drew Brees. Remember him? He's having a quiet but brutally efficient season. I know, he gets to have Sean Payton and Jimmy Graham, but I thought it would be helpful to compare the younger guys to an elite benchmark. I used Brees because of his limitations: he's not 2013 Peyton Manning who I think was secretly replaced by a robot, and he doesn't have Aaron Rodgers' arm and athleticism. What he does is maximize every physical trait he has to produce excellent results.

And Player F? That's 2011 Cam Newton. Hard to believe that he is a 3 year veteran. It's interesting comparing him to his rookie self. First, Cam's yards/attempt have taken a dive. 7.8 to 7.0 may not seem like a lot, but over 500 attempts, that amounts to 400 yards (25 yards/game). People have been fired for smaller differences. His completion percentage is up slightly, and he's throwing more TDs while giving up fewer picks. The sacks have been a disaster. We'll see some of that in the tape, but 8.4% is not sustainable. As a result, his adjusted net yards/attempt, to me a paramount indicator of QB performance, is the worst among the remaining starters. He remains a great rusher, but the Carolina staff has gone away from the zone-read stuff and a lot of his rushes are now scrambles.

In the tape, I want to focus on why he's taking those sacks. I also want to check his decision making, both in terms of speed and accuracy, as well as his mechanics and ball placement. Finally, I'll judge creativity of the offense, the personnel around him (how good guys are at getting open), etc. Warning: this gets pretty long as I chart most of his 36 throws.

1. Route tree is left side, WR on a go or TE on an out. Feet are in great position to throw to either. The 49ers right end rushes the 8-yards drop perfectly, causing a checkdown to the RB running to the left flat. Cam is hit while he throws and the ball falls incomplete. There is nobody around the RB and I think Cam blew this one. Once he saw the deep safety shading to the go route and the good LB coverage on the TE he should have immediately thought checkdown and gotten the ball out.

2: Again trying to go deep but the coverage is perfect. Look at the great depth the 49ers rushers get. Cam keeps his head up trying to escape the pocket, but makes the rookie error of trying to go around the defender. This would have worked in college but many NFL defenders are just too fast. Look at the room he would have had if he had stepped forward in the pocket rather than run to the right. Navarro Bowman is a fearsome LB and it looks like he's spying the middle, but Cam has a blocker there and lots of grass. Instead he takes a bad sack.

3: I didn't get this one.

4: Cam is in the middle of another mess. This time he makes the right call to step forward and rushes for a 1st. The Carolina blockers look completely outclassed. What is the guy at the bottom of the line doing?

One interesting thing is that even on deep routes, the Panthers had Cam dropping ~8 yards, a full yard less than what Colin was doing in the same game. This makes it harder for the QB (less time to make a decision) but easier for the offensive line (less space for defenders to use their speed, smaller area to block). They seem to trust Cam's reading of defenses more than the 49ers trusted Colin's.

5: The Panthers tried this a few times and the 49ers never bit. Cam fakes a screen to the left and a throws to a curl on the right. First, I've noticed a lot of young with their hips waaay open on screens to the left. I have to watch more veteran QBs to see if this is coached. Second, the 49ers, in zone coverage, read both the screen and the curl perfectly and almost picked Cam. I think the Panthers were expecting more than a 3 man rush, but overall, I think the screen concept is flawed.

Screens and misdirection are designed to take advantage of a defense's tendencies to be aggressive and over-pursue. But watching the 49ers under Harbaugh, they seem like an extremely disciplined bunch that rely on individual players executing perfectly, rather than a swarming bunch like Rob Ryan's defenses. There aren't a lot of gang tackles; most plays are made by individual defenders in space. This requires extremely talented players which the 49ers happen to have. Something to keep an eye on later to see if I'm right.

6: Trying to throw a deep out but his hips are pointed to the shallow out. Needless to say, this pass sailed and was incomplete.

7: Another missed assignment by the O-line leading to a throwaway. Only four rushers, guys.

8: Another deep out to the left. This time he has his feet pointed correctly but hesitates at the top of his drop, causing the throw to be late. You can see the coverage is good and he was probably waiting to see if his guy would get open, but on an out, waiting a beat places his receiver out of bounds when the ball gets there. Lots of guys take a little hop at the end of their drop; this is somewhat necessary to get the front foot pointed in the right direction, but the elite guys settle waste little motion, setting quickly and throw as soon as possible. See this Joe Montana video.

9: I don't like how he's flat footed here. Cam does this a lot, as does Josh Freeman, standing their with knees  straight. I know they both have great arms, but guys like Brees are constantly ready to throw so they don't have to rely on athleticism to get the ball out. Then, he steps to the left with his lead foot and opens his hips almost parallel to the line of scrimmage. This throw to a well covered receiver down the seam has to be perfect and the pass is anything but - it's tipped and had a chance to be intercepted by the deep safety. Terrible.

10: Still standing upright but his feet are pointed well and the ball is complete to an open receiver in the soft spot of the zone.

11: Hit as he threw but he keeps his feet right and gives his guy a shot. A little more air and this is a big play.

12: Awful feet and hips, sails the ball past an open receiver.

13: The 49ers had a couple looks at interceptions and finally get one. Cam is looking to go deep and has his feet pointed downfield as he pump fakes. He then decides to throw right where he has 2 receivers against 5 defenders. That'll work, right? At the release of the ball it is apparent he never moved his feet despite having some room to move forward and to the left in the pocket. In the last shot, we see that this ball is nowhere near any of the receivers. Bad read, bad motion, bad throw, bad interception.

14: Think fresh off a pick the Panthers' coaches call a safe pass? Nope: 10 yard drop and trying to go deep again. Somehow he escapes the pocket for a 4 yard scramble.

15: Great hips, great 25 yard completion to a guy that found a hole in the zone.

16: Hips open, dangerous throw complete. Shows his arm talent, but this needs to be cleaner.

17: Again, feet/hips pointed left but throwing over the right hash. Tipped by a LB, dangerous throw.

18: Better posture with his knees bent but he still opens his hips way too much. the receiver is very open, but the pass floats in allowing defenders to close and reducing yards-after-catch (YAC).

19: Beautiful throw to zip a ball between two defenders on a skinny post. This is what happens when you throw on-time with good mechanics. Leading the receiver leads to significant YAC.

20: Good feet position on an out but Cam has to throw over a rusher in his face and the ball is high.

21: Great throw. The rushers again get great depth but Cam steps forward this time. Notice how much room he has to run - but wait! It's 3rd and 12! He does a great job resisting the open field and keeps his eyes on receivers. The throw is perfectly placed to Steve Smith over the middle, who outright drops it.

22: Starts well, feet downfield, but the coverage is good allowing the rush to force him from the pocket. Correctly identifies there's nowhere to go in the middle and rolls right. Great arm position on the throw: ball is high, near his ear, right where it should be even if he was fully set. He passes accurately over a crowd of defenders but yet again, a Carolina receiver drops the would-be first down pass.

23: Nice little inside shovel; reminiscent of an old Urban Meyer play, another variation of reading the defensive end and making him guard two people (the RB and QB).

24: Good feet but Cam is still standing too upright. Throw is complete as the 49ers are in a soft zone.

25: His feet are decently placed but Cam just misses the throw on a comeback where the DB had fallen down.

26: Another case where they fake the screen and Cam opens his hips dramatically to that side. The screen is actually open as the coverage was soft, but the real play is a nicely executed seam route. Cam does a great job of getting his feet right after the fake.

27: 49ers brought pressure and Cam took too long getting the ball out. All QBs take sacks but you have to start recognizing these blitzes and know who's hot. Doesn't help the Panthers didn't show a short passing game outside of screens.

28: Checkdown.

29: Tries to throw to the flat but it's batted down. Good recognition that the deep coverage was good. Overall though the backs weren't super involved in the passing game.

30: This is atrocious. The pocket is clean for once as the linemen handle a rush up the middle, and Cam has a good 4 yards of space. Yet he steps back with his left foot, indicating the pass should go sideways. His poor foot and hip position proved insuperable as the pass hits the receiver in the hands but a foot out of bounds. Look how close the receiver was to coming down in the field of play. Then think about how many times Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees has hit a guy just as he was crossing the boundary. These guys understand that football is a game of inches and place throws in the tiniest of windows. Cam can do that, but he has to be more consistent with his throwing motion.

31: This throw shows you just how much arm talent he has. Dead sprint away from the pocket (what is the left tackle doing?), he throws a strike to a well covered receiver. Not many people can make this throw.

32: The running back is supposed to help on an inside blocker, who has completely beaten the RT. Instead, he whiffs on a block and two Panthers watch as their QB gets creamed.

33: Terrible foot position: you'd think he's throwing an out but it's a dig. Still completes it as the receiver has gotten decently open.

34/35: Missed these two (video quality issues)

36: This was a big boy throw. Hips perfectly in line, trusts that his LT will give him a beat, then throws a deep out. This completion only went for 8 yards on 3rd and 7, but the pass traveled close to 30 yards in the air. This throw arguably iced the game (before some fumble nonsense) and is an indicator of just how good Cam can be.

First, The good:
  1. Arm talent: He routinely makes throws that many others can't and has shown the ability, in a game against a good defense, to execute almost every throw. The trick is consistency: just because he can execute doesn't mean he does.
  2. Read progressions: This is one area where he was sharper than Colin. Outside of the one bad pick (and it was baaaad), he stayed away from trouble, went through progressions relatively fast, and didn't linger on on receiver/one side of the field. Colin also avoided bad reads but I think Cam was just a hair faster, allowing his coaches to call shallower drops. One thing he needs to get better at: pre-snap recognition of blitzes and rush tendencies. There's a reason that Peyton is sacked so little and it has nothing to do with his athleticism.
  3. Keeping his eyes downfield: Cam consistently completed passes when on the run, and this may be one of his best traits. He had a good mind for situations, too, knowing when to run and when to give his receivers a chance.
The bad:
  1. Moving in the pocket: Cam needs to get better at utilizing small steps and slides to navigate the pocket. A lot of young QBs just want to get out of there, and they often could in college. In the pros, you can't always run away from guys and need to learn how to hang in their longer. Ben Roethlisberger has made a career out of this, and Cam is a big guy like Ben. Cam also needs better awareness of where the pressure is coming from and where he has space.
  2. Posture: Cam needs to have his knees bent at all times. I know he has a fast release, but why complicated it by not being primed to throw when receivers come open? And you never know when you have to dump something off.
  3. Hips and feet: Cam's fundamentals were worse in this game than Colin's. He started off well but as the pressure got to him, we saw a lot of sailing, inaccurate throws as he opened his hips. It is clear he has greater arm talent than say Josh Freeman, but he absolutely needs to correct this to become a great passer.
A few contextual comments about the team around him:
  1. The Panthers in this game were abysmal at pass blocking, causing a lot of problems. Some of those sacks were truly not his fault.
  2. The receivers really let him down. Numerous drops on well thrown balls.
  3. The staff called an aggressive passing plan and didn't really work routes in the 0-5 yard depth

Overall, I saw a lot of things to like. I absolutely think you can build a future around Cam Newton, and a lot of his issues seem to stem from a lack of talent around him. The Panthers need to improve their offensive line and add some good receivers in order for this passing attack to be truly spectacular. But he also needs to work on his fundamentals or he'll never take advantage of his great raw talent.

#QBCorner #YMTC #YouMakeTheCalls

1 comment:

  1. I agree with this analysis, as well as REALLY needing to surround him with some talent on the offensive line and the WR department; adding a more powerful and fast running back as well as TE would not hurt as well. I LOVE Jonathan Stewart if he can stay healthy because I really thought his absence was HUGE because he can block; as well as get at least 6-10 plus yards a carry. If all of these issues are addressed with real talent and a coach that can work with CAM on his fundamentals; I think that he can take this league by storm.