New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton said Monday that he point thumbs, not fingers.
— The Patriots practiced just twice in the two weeks leading up to their Week 6 matchup with the Broncos. They looked rusty, sloppy and hesitant.
— They had an already banged-up offensive line that lost another piece when right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor went down with an ankle injury early in the game. The Patriots’ offensive line played its worst game of the season, failing to open holes in the run game and allowing the pocket to regularly collapse on Newton.
— Newton missed throws late in the game, most egregiously to wide receivers Damiere Byrd, Julian Edelman and N’Keal Harry on the Patriots’ final drive. Maybe Newton was gassed after missing two weeks of practice. Maybe he was dealing with something physically. Regardless, the Patriots gave Edelman two shots at throwing the ball on trick plays that series, which was notable. Newton appeared to put a ton of effort into a heaved but ultimately shallow pass to an open Byrd down the left sideline. That allowed Broncos cornerback Michael Ojemudia to catch up to the pass and make a pass breakup. Newton grounded a pass to Edelman over the middle. He also threw 5 yards off-target to Harry on the Patriots’ final offensive play of the game.
With the game on the line, Newton struggled as a passer. He also took a beating, getting sacked four times. Newton was to blame for at least one of those sacks, however, when he should have known pressure was coming with two tight ends releasing into the flat after chipping edge rushers. He also missed his window when Byrd was open on a slant route late in the game. Once the window closed, Newton went down with a sack.
— Newton did have trouble getting comfortable in the pocket all game with an inexperienced and unpracticed offensive line in front of him.
But the most popular area to place blame for the Patriots’ loss is on the team’s lack of weapons. And while the Patriots’ wide receivers’ and tight ends’ inability to get open wasn’t a particularly glaring issue Sunday, it is an overarching problem that sets off dominos throughout New England’s offense.
Newton, pointing thumbs at himself, is standing by his skill players. The Patriots are fine at running back, but it would be impossible to argue they don’t need additional help at receiver and tight end. Byrd, who has never been more than a fringe-No. 3 option on any other team, is the Patriots’ top wide receiver as Harry continues to struggle living up to expectations as a first-round pick and Edelman appears limited physically. The Patriots have shown little to no interest in giving players like Isaiah Zuber, Jakobi Meyers or Gunner Olszewski more opportunities to supplant Byrd, Harry or Edelman.
Ryan Izzo, a 2018 seventh-round pick better known for his blocking prowess, is the Patriots’ top tight end. Rookie Devin Asiasi still hasn’t been targeted despite being open at times, and fellow 2020 third-round pick Dalton Keene has yet to dress for a game.
When Byrd and Izzo are the top pass-catching “weapons,” then an offense intrinsically is going to have issues moving the ball. Byrd has plenty of speed, but he’s 5-foot-9, 180 pounds. Newton isn’t going to throw him a jump ball down the sideline and hope he can come up with it. Edelman is only receiving No. 3 snaps as he continues to mend an injured knee. Harry has all the size in the world but seems to be having trouble getting on the same page as Newton.
Harry also is not always using that size to his advantage and wound up on the turf on both of his two (!) targets Sunday.
This ball was tipped, so Broncos cornerback Bryce Callahan was able to get physical with Harry, whose feet got tangled. But Harry also could have been more physical with Callahan after that ball was tipped. At that point, contact is allowed from both sides.
If Newton had better receivers — ones that he could trust to get open quicker or come down with a contested catch — then maybe some of those other issues become less glaring. Newton had Harry and Byrd streaking down the field each facing 1-on-1 coverage late in the first quarter. If he had anticipated either receiver breaking in, then he could have completed a chunk play down the field. Both receivers eventually got open. Instead, Newton sat in the pocket and got sacked. It’s unclear what the goal of that play was if Newton wasn’t going to give one of his receivers a shot to come down with the ball in 1-on-1 coverage.
Adding a legitimate No. 1 threat into the passing game also could open up the field for other receivers.
Running back James White is a tremendous third-down back. But an offense can only get so far off of screens, checkdowns and dumpoffs to a running back.
The Patriots’ defense was far from perfect Sunday, but they only let up 18 points, holding the Broncos to field goals throughout the game. The Patriots’ offense, regardless of lack of practice time or injuries to the offensive line, should be able to keep up with six field goals.
They couldn’t Sunday. And while it’s rather simplistic to blame the Patriots’ loss on a lack of talent at the skill positions, it’s also not wrong. Things can be multi-faceted. The Patriots were dealing with injuries and a lack of practice time. Newton wasn’t on his A-game. But the Tennessee Titans also had a lack of practice time and managed to beat the Buffalo Bills and Houston Texans in consecutive weeks.
Newton has now completed 68 percent of his passes for 871 yards with two touchdowns and four interceptions for a 81.5 passer rating in four games. His most productive performance came in Week 2 while trailing against a porous Seattle Seahawks pass defense. Perhaps too much stock was put in that game while assessing the Patriots’ passing game. Newton played it safe with short passes in Week 1 but has struggled in Week 3 and 6. He was out with COVID-19 in Week 4 before the Patriots’ Week 5 bye.
The 2020 Patriots certainly have potential. But they also have plenty of questions to answer with a sub-.500 record through six weeks. The trade deadline is looming, and the Patriots could use more talent.