The Minnesota Vikings have passed a lot of tests on their drive to the playoffs; they’ve been able to produce offensively with adaptive, flexible approaches that react to the opponent’s strategy and the defense has taken on all comers.
They’ve put away attacks that spread the ball out and exploit matchups by dealing with New Orleans and they’ve limited the offensive production of skilled after-catch players in Detroit. The explosive Washington offense struggled after an initial salvo and the quick-acting Los Angeles Rams fell apart. After an offensive revival, an Atlanta offense built off of one of the top quarterback-receiver combinations sputtered against the Vikings.
But they could be up against their most dynamic opponent yet. Cam Newton has been a conundrum this year, and has been equally deadly to opposing defenses as he has been to the Panthers’ playoff chances. The former NFL MVP is a dynamic weapon, unlike any other player the Vikings have played this season.
Who exactly are the Vikings going up against this week?
I asked Mark Schofield, a quarterback evaluator for Inside the Pylon, about Newton’s season, and he had quite a bit to say.
“Answering this question perhaps requires a positional definition of sorts for Cam Newton,” he explained. “Look at him as a pure quarterback and you can state from both a statistical and a film review standpoint that his 2017 has been mixed at best.
“Currently, he had a 14/11 TD/INT ratio, and his 11 interceptions are 4th most in the league this year. He has posted to date an ANY/A of 5.35, putting him 26th among qualified passers and behind such prolific passers as Blake Bortles, Josh McCown and Ryan Fitzpatrick.”
He went on to detail that film work on Newton reveals the extent of his struggles.
“Ball-placement, which has been an issue for Newton at times, continues to be an area where he struggles. Take his game against the New York Jets. On two different occasions, both Smash route concepts where he looked to find tight end Greg Olsen on the corner route, the ball placement was off and the Panthers missed a potential big play.”
Schofield isn’t kidding – those plays were ugly. The one below should have been a sure touchdown. Instead, the Panthers had to settle for a field goal.
One can forgive Newton for the above play in part because he was playing that Jets game with a thumb injury, but it’s clear that accuracy problems have dogged him throughout his career. Not only that, Newton is much more than a passer.
“However, if you view Newton through the lens of ‘offensive weapon,’” clarified Schofield, “he remains a dangerous — even deadly at times — player to defend.
“During the preseason, word out of Carolina was that the offense was going to move away from using Newton as a runner, to limit hits on him and to protect him from injury. But in recent weeks there has been more a move to ‘let Cam be Cam.’ Against the Miami Dolphins on a Monday night a few weeks back, as well as against the Jets, quarterback runs were more a feature of the gameplan. So despite the inconsistencies in the passing game, Newton can still find a way to beat you.”
I also asked Derrik Klassen of Football Outsiders to talk about Newton, and he agreed with Schofield’s conclusions.
“Cam Newton has been as inconsistent as ever this season,” he said. “When he has been ‘on’, he has been lights out. The Detroit game comes to mind. He still shows the top-level arm strength and ball placement all over the field. However, Newton has struggled against defenses that can get home with four pass rushers.
“The Panthers do not have anyone who wins consistently against man coverage, often leaving Newton helpless. On top of that, Newton came into the year banged up and injured the thumb on his throwing hand the week prior to the Jets game, in which he was wildly inaccurate. Newton can still be top class, but his supporting cast and personal health have not allowed that to happen every week.”
Newton’s inconsistency is a running theme and one can measure that inconsistency by looking at his week-to-week performances in two metrics: Pro Football Focus grades and adjusted net yards per attempt. As Schofield argued, Newton is much more than a passer, so I’ve expanded that statistic to cover rushing attempts and touchdowns as well.
First, his week-to-week PFF grades compared to other high-profile passers:
Next, his week-to-week performance, as measured by adjusted net yards per play:
His swings in both statistics are wilder than they are for any of the quarterbacks measured in the chart above. Though his valleys are occasionally matched by Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger, no one dips as low as often as Newton does, nor does anyone who drops very often has many games in elite territory.
When measuring the mathematical variance in week-to-week PFF grades, Newton ranks 27th of 30 passers (Jay Cutler, DeShone Kizer and Deshaun Watson rank lower) in consistency. In adjusted net yards per play, he ranks 24th of 30, with players like Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton sneaking below him.
It is worth noting that Newton, like previous opponent Jared Goff, seems more sensitive to the defensive quality of his opponent than the average quarterback. For example, his games against the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots are highlights for him and they happen to be fairly poor defenses.
the Vikings have been the single-most effective team to play Newton over the past four years
On the other hand, he did post a stellar game against an underrated Bears defense and is coming off a great performance against the Saints, who have been fantastic this year on defense when Marshon Lattimore has been on.
Klassen also mentioned Newton’s supporting cast. Though Newton hasn’t been great at getting the ball to his receivers on a consistent basis — Pro Football Focus regards him as having the fifth-worst accuracy rate in the NFL — he also doesn’t get much help on those occasions the ball actually hits his receivers’ hands; Carolina has the eighth-highest drop rate in the NFL.
Newton’s accuracy problem might, in fact, be more related to his supporting cast than his own innate quality. Forced to throw into tighter windows because his receivers won’t separate, he has a razor-thin margin of error on which passes are called “accurate” relative to other passers in the league.
I asked about the primary traits the former Auburn quarterback brings to the table and the standout qualities Klassen and Schofield identified were virtually identical.
Klassen focused first on Newton’s arm strength. “Newton’s defining qualities are his arm talent and ability as a red zone weapon,” Klassen told me. “In regards to his arm, Newton blends a rapid release with unrivaled velocity. Newton can attack windows that would be closed for any other quarterback, but he has the velocity to fit the ball in wherever he wants to. The previously mentioned thumb injury may alter that for now, but generally, Newton’s arm talent is unmatched.”
Schofield expounded on that with a discussion of throwing physics. “Something that astounds me watching Newton play the position is torque,” he said. “His ability to use his upper body and left shoulder during the throwing motion to generate power and velocity is perhaps unparalleled in the NFL. Sure there are times when ball placement can be off, but his ability to dial up velocity can be a determinative factor in beating coverage, and it starts with his upper body and torque.
“It is very reminiscent of Tiger Woods off the tee, during his best playing days. There are situations where velocity can make the difference between a completion, an incompletion, and even an interception, and Newton has the ability to drive the football to all levels of the field with incredible velocity thanks to the torque he can generate with his throwing motion.”
These throws really underline who Newton might really be from an accuracy perspective. Despite having one of the lowest “accuracy rates” by Pro Football Focus, the requirement that he fit his accurate passes into the tightest windows demonstrates that he could be one of the more accurate quarterbacks in the NFL, particularly when he’s “on.”
Beyond that, of course, is what Newton can do as a runner. Schofield mentioned that his athleticism is an essential part of his game. “The first thing that comes to mind thinking of Newton is his athleticism,” conceded Schofield. “He has the play-making ability of Russell Wilson in a body similar to LeBron’s. Both as a runner and as a quarterback who can break containment and make throws downfield in the scramble drill, Newton is among the league’s best.”
That gives him an advantage in the red zone, as Klassen explains. “As a red zone weapon, Newton is unique. His throwing velocity allows him to fit windows in a condensed field, but it is his ability as a runner that unlocks the offense. The Panthers can run options, reverses, QB power, QB counter, and so much more because of the threat of Newton as a runner. He is a 6’5″, 250 pounder who can win a foot race to the perimeter. No other quarterback provides that run threat quite the same way Newton does.”
Despite issues with his supporting cast, including a perpetually suspect pass protection unit, the Panthers have ranked sixth in touchdown percentage from the red zone over the past three years — behind teams like Green Bay, New England and New Orleans.
There’s not a strong relationship that demonstrates the difference between the number of receivers he targeted in successful games or how often he was pressured in his worse outings, but there is the sense that trading away Kelvin Benjamin has been a net positive.
Though Newton should probably test the field deep a little more often this year — he ranks 28th in Pro Football Focus’ “Big Time Throw” percentage statistic, after ranking in the top three for most of his career — his ability to distribute the ball to other kinds of receivers, like Christian McCaffrey, Devin Funchess and now Olsen has been an asset.
All else being equal, the Vikings would have a tough time stopping Newton. But there is no even playing field and Newton has to play with the receivers and the offensive line that he has. He’ll have to get rid of the ball quicker and pass into tighter windows.
The Vikings may not have to do anything special to beat those receivers and the offensive line.
Over the past several games, they’ve blitzed more often than they had at the beginning of the season but they might want to dial it back for this game. With Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks sticking in coverage, those short passes that the Panthers offense have been experimenting with will be that much harder.
Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith on the back end will do fantastic work making sure Funchess and his partners — be they Russell Shepard, Kaelin Clay or Brenton Bursin — don’t have the room they need to give Newton the tight window he needs without doing specific adjustments to keep them reeled in.
Should they engage in more man coverage than zone looks, they might be able to neutralize Funchess’ best strengths, too. As a surprisingly nimble receiver in a 6-foot-5 frame, Funchess has excelled in finding the open space in zones but frustratingly for the Panthers hasn’t won his fair share of contested catches.
With seven players in coverage and a front four that can get pressure by themselves, The Vikings should be able to reel Newton in.
By allowing only 1.48 adjusted net yards per attempt to Newton since 2014, the Vikings have been the single-most effective team to play him over the past four years. And both the experts I consulted with noted that the Vikings should have some real success against him in this next game, too.
“I think this is a game and a defense that gives him trouble,” said Schofield. “First, the Vikings are among the league’s best defenses, with an overall DVOA placing them 6th in the league, and a pass and run defense that are both ranked eighth in terms of DVOA. Minnesota will be the second-toughest defense that Newton has faced this year according to DVOA numbers, behind Philadelphia. Against the Eagles, Newton completed 28 of 52 passes for 239 yards and one touchdown to go with three interceptions. His passer rating for that game was a mere 48.5 and his AY/A was only 2.38, his second-worst outing of the season.”
Both noted the overall quality of Minnesota’s defenses, but the specifics of what the Vikings do well really tightens the screws for this game. Schofield went on to talk about Newton’s aggressiveness in tight windows and how much of a problem the Vikings can cause with that forced playing style.
“The Vikings do not allow a lot of big throwing windows,” Schofield argued. “With a shutdown corner in Xavier Rhodes, a developing corner in Trae Waynes who likely faces a matchup with Russell Shepard or Kaelin Clay, and two very decent safeties in Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo, Newton is likely facing a game where he needs to make a number of tight window throws. As the film and the numbers bear out, those are not the best situations for him. Provided the Minnesota defense can contain him in the pocket with Griffin and Hunter, Newton might be in a bad spot when this game kicks off in terms of his qualities as a passer going up against this Minnesota defense.”
Indeed, Schofield shared an aggressiveness statistic from NFL’s Next Gen Stats laboratory, where Newton and the rest of the passing offense have struggled to produce.
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) November 29, 2017
Klassen agreed. “Minnesota’s defense is set up to hamper Newton,” he explained. “Minnesota will be able to get pressure with four, and Rhodes should completely vaporize whomever he is covering on a given down. Carolina’s only real intermediate threat is Olsen, but top-notch linebackers and safeties in Minnesota should nullify that threat. The Panthers just are not talented enough to outmatch the Vikings defense and Newton likely won’t be healthy enough to overcome that. Even if Cam were healthy, this is a lopsided fight in favor of Minnesota.”
That front four pressure might be the key, as open running lanes for a scrambling Newton can be quickly filled by a pair of speedy quarterback spies in Kendricks and Barr. There won’t be much room, if all goes well, for Newton to do what he does best — and the Vikings could force him into situations where he has to settle for narrow throwing windows to mediocre receivers.
Generally, Cam Newton the player would be a tough matchup for any defense. In this case, Newton and the rest of the passing offense should struggle against a defense that’s flying high.