Bill Belichick has never been known to waste an opportunity to gain an advantage for his New England Patriots. Facing Cam Newton in the all-important third preseason game presents a unique chance to test his defense prior to the onset of real football.
Expect Belichick to make the most of it.
In 2014, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and Belichick will be charged with such game-planning against mobile quarterbacks—like Newton—nine times in the regular season. Geno Smith (twice), EJ Manuel (twice), Ryan Tannehill (twice), Aaron Rodgers, Alex Smith and Andrew Luck all are on the New England's defense menu.
Here is what to look for in their appetizer against Newton and the Carolina Panthers.
In last season's Panthers victory, highlighted—or lowlighted if you are from New England—by Luke Kuechly "not" interfering with Rob Gronkowski on the last play of the game, the Patriots did an overall poor job containing Newton. One play—shown below—exemplified the struggles that Belichick's defenders had dealing with the athletic and physical Newton.
Newton ran seven times for 62 yards, far and away the leading rusher for Carolina. This year, Patricia will be looking to make him stay put and beat him only with his arm. Newton, like both Smiths the Patriots will face, might be more of a threat on the move than with the paltry options they have outside.
To accomplish that feat, the defensive ends will need to focus on containment, perhaps at the expense of some sacks. While Rob Ninkovich is a master at this, Chandler Jones and Michael Buchanan need some work in this area.
With the ends employing a bit of a "mush-rush," the focus will be on the interior defenders in creating some pressure. While Vince Wilfork isn't known for getting to the quarterback, Tommy Kelly has shown the ability to apply pressure without losing his discipline. Jones could also take some snaps inside as a tackle.
In the regular season, the interior line should also be bolstered by pass-rush specialists like Dominique Easley and Chris Jones.
The downside of containing Newton is that it will put even more pressure on the defensive backfield. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), eight of the top 12 leaders in "time in pocket" were mobile quarterbacks in 2013.
That could be an extra half-second that Darrelle Revis and company are going to have to run with receivers. However, Revis and fellow free-agent signee Brandon Browner excel at disrupting receivers' releases off the line, negating some of that time advantage.
If the defensive line and secondary can coordinate what they are doing Friday night into a winning formula, the Patriots may be facing another mobile quarterback on their schedule. Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks and Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers are two of the favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.