Cam Newton to Brandon LaFell – Pre Snap Reads Favorite Plays of the 2013 NFL Season

Cam Newton isn’t just a freak athlete

2013 proved to be a big year for Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers.

He was once again a very productive, all-around player as he finished the season with just under 4,000 total yards, 30 total touchdowns that included his most ever passing touchdowns, 24, and just 14 total turnovers.

Recognizing Newton’s ability now and focusing less on the manufactured negatives about his character is a popular action. However, that is primarily because his Panthers made the playoffs and his Panthers made the playoffs because of a vastly improved defense.

The additions of Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short along with unexpected improvements from vested veterans allowed the defense to become one of the best in the league. According to Football Outsiders DVOA metric, they were the third best unit in the NFL after being the 11th best in 2012.

It’s easy to point to the defensive side of the ball and suggest the Panthers are only good now because of a better defense and not because Newton is a good quarterback. That is the wrong angle to look at this young quarterback and his franchise.

The real question is why were the Panthers bad during Newton’s first two seasons. He has always produced statistically and been ahead of the curve in terms of his development. A limited supporting cast on offense and an underwhelming defense simply held the franchise back from team success.

Now that the team is good and the nonsensical P.R. attacks based on body language have been eradicated, we can really focus on what Newton is.

Newton is a developing quarterback who is quickly becoming one of the best in the NFL at his position. Last season, he affirmed that idea by becoming less of a risky playmaker and more of a refined quarterback.

Statistically, he may not have run for 14 rushing touchdowns like he did during his rookie season, but he did complete a higher percentage of his passes, average fewer yards per attempt, take more sacks and attempt fewer passes than he had in previous seasons.

Some of those things are technically negatives, but that’s only if you take them in a vacuum.

Newton did those things while not turning the ball over as much as he had previously. He was never a turnover machine and he did need to be more aggressive during his first two seasons because the defense wasn’t as good, but in 2013 he understood what he needed to do to better set up his team to win games.

Instead of forcing the ball down the field into tighter windows for big plays that inevitably came after a series of incompletions, Newton would find his checkdown receiver more often and allow the offense to stay ahead of the down-and-distance.

Instead of doing everything possible to extend plays against pressure or speeding up his motion to get the ball out too early and risk turnovers, Newton was more likely to protect the ball and settle for a negative play when the situation called for it in 2013.

This kind of intelligence and technique could also be seen in how he managed the pocket and how he read defenses. One of his biggest plays of the season had nothing to do with his athleticism, but rather his ability as a pocket passer.

It’s 3rd-and-3 at the beginning of the second half. The Panthers are up by 11, leading 14-3, against the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings are threatening to blitz before the snap, so Newton motions a receiver across the formation while watching to front seven and safeties to try and get them to tip their hand.

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The slot cornerback from the left side of the offense follows Ted Ginn across the field, suggesting man coverage, but he then swaps assignments with the other cornerback on the left side of the defense. This suggests that the Panthers are either running zone coverage or that slot cornerback is blitzing off the edge.

Newton doesn’t adjust the blocking after Ginn arrives on the other side of the field and neither does the center. However, after the snap we learn that the blocking called would have accounted for a cornerback blitz so there would have been no need for Newton to change the blocking if he read the defense in this way.

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The Vikings have six immediate defenders in pass-rushing positions, while the Panthers have seven blockers in place because tight end Greg Olsen lines up in the backfield. Although the Panthers have a one man advantage, they must account for the potential outside blitz.

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Steve Smith is running a 10-yard in route from the left side of the field. Newton understands that he will be able to try and throw to Smith if the inside linebackers blitz to leave space underneath. With that in mind, that appears to be where he keeps his eyes at the snap while running a play fake with Mike Tolbert.

Along with the play fake and Newton reading the inside linebacker, the initial blocking setup is this:

Mike Tolbert and Greg Olsen are working across to double team Jared Allen, something that’s always a good option when it’s possible against this personnel grouping. The left tackle, Jordan Gross, is blocking down inside on the right defensive tackle, while the left guard-center-right guard combination is creating a wall on the interior so Newton has a pocket to step into.

The left guard seemingly had to account for the right inside linebacker before turning towards the left defensive tackle when he began to drop into coverage, while the right guard initially slid towards his center to help with the defensive tackle or account for the left inside linebacker. On the outside, the right tackle was very aggressive against the left defensive end, but his momentum is carrying him into the flat.

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On the second phase of the blocking, we can see that both inside linebackers are dropping into coverage and the cornerback doesn’t blitz, but he is accounted for because of the positioning of the right tackle.

Newton’s eyes have remained fixed to one spot, near the right inside linebacker, to this point in the play.

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This is the moment when Newton takes his eyes away from Steve Smith, the left receiver, for the first time. He lingered much longer on the first target than he needed to if he was solely deciding on whether he could throw to Smith or not. Realistically, Newton will have known that Smith wasn’t an option as soon as he saw the underneath linebackers begin to drop.

However, his lingering eyes drew the deep safety in center field towards Smith. Because of the decisiveness with which Newton turns back towards the other side of the field, it becomes apparent that he understood he was manipulating the free safety to create space for the routes on the other side of the field.

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The Vikings are playing a Cover-3 defense, so they have three deep defenders with four underneath. Each defender is in zone coverage.

The Panthers have the perfect route combinations called to the right of the formation to break the Vikings zone. Ginn, who motioned across the formation before the snap, is the outside receiver and he is running a post route. Brandon LaFell was the inside receiver and he starts running down the seam, before angling towards the sideline.

This movement, combined with Newton’s manipulation of the deep safety in the middle of the field, creates a two-on-one situation with the left cornerback.

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Newton makes his read off the left cornerback. Because the left cornerback runs infield with Ginn, he is left with a wide open throw to Brandon LaFell for a massive touchdown reception.

Throwing to a wide open receiver is theoretically easy, but what Newton did to create the wide open throw wasn’t. Furthermore, Newton read the defense while adjusting his feet against pressure in the pocket. The above image shows him with his feet set in a clean pocket, but he had to create that also.

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Newton is known more for his ability to break off big gains in space past the line of scrimmage and run over defensive backs and linebackers as a goal-line back. However, he also has wonderful, if inconsistent feet.

Newton’s next stage of development will focus around throwing the ball with his feet set all the time, but he has the subtlety required to manipulate the pocket as well as most quarterbacks in the NFL.

This is the kind of play where a quarterback elevates his teammates. He adjusted in the pocket to help Greg Olsen against Jared Allen, after manipulating the defense to give Brandon LaFell a wide open reception.

LaFell and Ginn played big roles too, as LaFell was released down the sideline by an excellent Ginn block, but this play was primarily about the quarterback.

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