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Thursday, January 9, 2014

QB Corner - Cam Newton (NO @ CAR)

What an exciting time to be a Panther's fan! This year's teams exorcised multiple demons on its way to earnings a first-round bye, winning multiple close games against strong competition, including one-score victories over the 49ers, Patriots, and Saints, all teams still alive in the playoffs. That must feel good after losing seven games by one score last year, including one overtime game and two others decided by three points or less.

Perhaps the biggest win of the season was the 4-point victory in Week 16 versus the rival Saints. Winning that game helped Carolina clinch its bye and home game; lose, and the Panthers likely would have traveled to Philly, then to Seattle this weekend. I'm not saying that Panthers can't beat the Seahawks in Seattle, but I can't imagine wanting to go there unnecessarily.

In many ways, that win over the Saints was a microcosm of the Panthers' season, and especially that of star QB Cam Newton. He has finally put things together this year, and in that game, delivered the game-winning TD drive with less than a minute on the clock. That's one reading. Another is this: that Sunday, Cam Newton and the Panthers were bailed out by their defense which intercepted Drew Brees twice and sacked him 6 times, killing several promising Saints drives. The Panthers won despite Cam throwing for only 181 yards, completing only 59% of passes, and taking 4 sacks for 40 yards. In fact, Cam's QBR of 16.6 was his second worst of the year.

So which is the real Cam Newton? In almost all cases I've examined on #QBCorner, the answer is somewhere in the middle. I went through an exhaustive post on his performance in the 49ers game, finding that he is a talented though sometimes inconsistent QB. I again analyzed every pass from the last Saints game and while I won't go through that much detail on him again, here's list of things I liked and didn't like:

Greg Olsen

After the 49ers game, I noted that the Panthers coaches called a lot of deep passes and didn't really take advantage of the middle of the field. Notably, Greg Olsen saw only 3 targets, catching one for 14 yards. There's a big difference between throwing against Navarro Bowman / Patrick Willis and and Junior Gallette / David Hawthorne / Curtis Lofton / Parys Haralson. But the Panthers coaches made the right choice to get Olsen involved in the intermediate areas where he presents a big target for his young QB. On the day, Olsen was targeted 7 times (next most was Ginn with 4 targets), catching 4 balls for 35 yards. Olsen gives the passing game a much-needed extra dimension given the backs aren't involved at all (see below).
Cam does a great job getting his feet aligned to the right. It's harder to do this going right than left for a right-handed QB because you need to adjust both your front and your back foot. Throwing left often only requires a simple step with the front foot to open the hips.



Pass is thrown on a rope to Olsen who converts the first down.

Receiver Drops

However, Olsen was also not immune to drops:
The fake a quick throw to the left and Cam does a decent job resetting his feet. Again, harder to do so going to the right.
The pass is on the money - perhaps with a little pace, but you really can't ask for more as he needs to clear the linebacker underneath. It his Olsen in the hands and he doesn't really have to jump to reach it.
 This should have been a 27 yard completion.

Overall, drops from various receivers were a problem in the 49ers game and continue to plague this offense. Cam's only pick was on a dropped pass in the red zone:
The Saints are in zone coverage. To the right the Panthers have a receiver clearing out the deep zone and another running to the flat; both are well covered. The Panthers are looking for a blown coverage up the seam. They are also trying to take advantage of some space when one zone defender passes a receiver off to another. To the left, a similar route combination has the tight end clear the seam with the outside receiver sneaking underneath.
Cam's mechanics are excellent. His feet and eyes were pointed down the right seam, but that being covered, he adjusts quickly to the receiver than dragged across from his left. The receiver's job is to find a place in the zone, sit, and wait for the ball. Cam sees that the circled linebacker in zone coverage is about to lay some wood; Newton needs to lead his man back left through the small gap between the two linebackers. He correctly shuffles his feet to point down the left hash. The receiver has barely turned, meaning the throw is on-time
After the throw, Newton's hips him pointed at the target - textbook throwing form. The pass hits the receiver right on the hands with his momentum coming to the middle of the field.
But the pass is dropped, and off a deflection, intercepted at the 9 yard line. If the pass was caught at the 14 with no YAC leaving the Panthers with 3rd and 13, the expected point value from this drive (courtesy of Advanced NFL Stats) is 2.99:
Instead the Saints had the ball at the 14, where the pick was returned, with 11:36 remaining in the 1st; the expected point total for this drive was only 0.04:
Combine the two, and this drop basically cost the Panthers 3.03 points in a game that they won by 4. This is an unacceptable level of play from the Carolina receiving core.

Here is another case.
Again, the young QB exhibits great form on a deep out. This is a tough pass that is often described as the ultimate NFL pass: across the field from the right hash, a QB has to throw away from the defender but not lead his man out of bounds.
Cam's pass is right on the money. Look at his guy's feet right on the boundary (sorry for grainy images):
But the receiver can't haul it in. If it counted, this would have gone down as a 18-yard completion. But the pass travels more like 30 yards in the air, and Cam put it within a tiny window.

Steve Smith

With the receivers struggling, the Panthers absolutely need Steve Smith. The veteran is back at practice, but it is anyone's guess how effective he'll be after he sprained his PCL on this decently thrown ball from Cam:
A little high, but I wonder if he would have grabbed it had his knee not flared.
Ouch. Hope he's back and raring.

Ball Security

In the past, QB Corner has criticized QBs for looseness with the ball on scrambles, like this:
6 to block 4? Shouldn't be a problem right?
Looking, looking, looking...
Starting to run around a bit. Why does he have a bunch of linemen standing around?
Time to go. But why is his holding the ball out in front? I know he's trying to keep his center of gravity low, but he should tuck as soon as possible.
Still has it out.
Running with the ball near his knees.
Cam is now almost at the line of scrimmage and has to make a quick pass/run decision. But he's still holding the ball in front very casually. If he's thinking pass, the ball should be up in a passing stance; if he wants to run, it should be tucked into his elbow and chest to protect it. He eventually tucks it as he crosses the line on a 2 yard scramble.

Why is ball security so important to me? Well on the very next play...
 ...Cam again gets pressure up the middle.
And tries to escape it. Look how he's waving the ball like a madman even as defenders close in.
He's brought down at the 15, but not before the ball squirts out of his grasp. See how he's on the ground and yet there's a defender diving at him? He's diving because he sees the ball on the ground.
Cam is able to reach out and pull the ball in, but fumble recoveries are often nothing more than luck: you're trusting an oblong ball to bounce your way. The Panthers were fortunate here: they could punt on 4th and 28 from their own 15. According to Advanced NFL stats, the Panthers' points expectation was -1.77 following a punt (i.e., the Saints were expected to score 1.77 points after receiving the punt):

But if the ball takes a Saints bounce and they recover at the 15, their expected points shoots up to 4.39:

If the Saints recover, that's a difference of 2.62 points in a game the Panther's won by 4 (4.39 points after fumble - 1.77 points they would have gotten after punt). Using Chase Stuart's research showing that the defense recovers 60.5% of QB sack fumbles that don't go out of bounds, the Saints get an average of 2.66 points for each time Cam puts the ball on the ground in that situation (60.5% probability * 4.39 points), with a total net gain (2.66 - 1.77) of 0.89 points. That doesn't seem like much, but ask the Chiefs if they could have used 0.89 points.

Rushing

Deep in the 2nd quarter, after the defense picked of Drew Brees near midfield, DeAngelo Williams took a handoff 43 yards to the house. His other 11 rushes averaged 2.18 yards/carry with only 2 rushes going longer than 3 yards and 4 touches for no gain. Panthers' backs weren't much help in the passing game, catching 3 balls for 5 yards. Not good for a group the team has heavily invested in.

Footwork and Reads

Cam has shown some real growth this season in fundamental quarterbacking skills. Playing the Saints seems easier than the 49ers, but did you know the Saints had this year's 9th best defense by weighted DVOA (-5.9%) while the 49ers ranked only 11th (-5.3%)? Or that the Saints had the 6th-rated passing defense (-9.2%) while the 49ers were 10th (-2.1%)? These guys aren't pushovers, and Cam performed admirably. There were a few hiccups:

Weird sidearm delivery that doesn't work for him as the pass is low. I get that a rusher might have closed the throwing lane though.

 Works back to the left after his read to the right is covered (good). But he flips his feet too much.
Isn't able to get it off and is sacked.

But Cam showed some nice reads and nifty footwork:
Looks like zone coverage with possibly man on the left side. Cam does a good job looking the safety off to the right and then adjusting back to Greg Olsen in the middle.
 And hits him on his hands.
 ARGH! Drop!

The next play, the Panthers want to attack the Saints' scheme. Looks again like zone over the middle and man on the far left. That receiver takes his man deep and Greg runs underneath.
Newton's footwork is actually excellent. However his ankle was dinged on an earlier play and he's not moving like he used to. Not able to drive the ball, it sails.

Now the Panthers have given up the lead and are in desperation mode with under a minute left:
The pocket is collapsing but Cam doesn't panic. You can't see his feet, but his left shoulder is oriented downfield, meaning he hasn't lost his mechanics in the face of pressure.
Correct mechanics allow him to throw a strike.

But the Panthers still aren't quite in field goal range.
The pocket is closing - a sack would be devastating; not only are you definitely out of FG range, but that clock keeps running. Cam again does a fantastic job getting his feet back to the right.
He throws another strike between two defenders.

His last pass is a gem:
The Saints bring a DB around the edge and he is completely un-blocked as the RB totally whiffs (what else is new...).
Cam somehow shrugs him off. His footwork was spot on before he dodged the sack, but now he needs to throw in a hurry.
Cam's arm talent is enough to complete the game-winning TD.
From another angle, we can see how his footwork was but the rusher spun him around.

This last pass is what makes Cam so special. His athleticism and arm talent dragged his sorry offense to a win against one of the best teams in the NFL. His has flashed the ability to manipulate defenses and make good reads, and the consistency of his footwork has improved. He needs to work on his understanding of the pocket and security with the ball. Overall, Carolina look like they're a couple linemen and a couple skill guys short on offense. But with a terrific defensive front 7 and improved secondary? I wouldn't be surprised at all if the legend of Cam grows as the team goes on a Super Bowl run.

#YMTC #YouMakeTheCalls #QBCorner

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