The Patriots weren't surprised by Panthers quarterback Cam Newton's ability to run, but all that preparation for the read-option couldn't help the Patriots completely shut him down.
What was surprising, however, was that the Patriots defense -- maligned for its inability to stop the running game in recent weeks -- held Panthers running backs to 41 yards on 16 carries.
It was three carries by Newton -- all on third down, all of longer than 10 yards -- that really flipped the script in favor of the Panthers.
Second quarter, 7:37 remaining, 3rd-and-6 on the Panthers' 46-yard line
Newton's first big run of the night might have been stopped if two defenders hadn't occupied the same gap, leaving another gap open for a run.
The Patriots had their secondary in man coverage, and sent a five-man rush at Newton off the snap. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower looped around from the right side through the A-gap, but he ended up getting behind defensive tackle Joe Vellano instead of splitting Vellano and defensive end Chandler Jones.
Hightower tried to recover in time, but was tangled up with Vellano before he could react to Newton's speed. Other than that one missed gap, the Patriots pocket containment was good on this play. No one got too far behind Newton.
Third quarter, 8:04 remaining, 3rd-and-7 on the Panthers' 37-yard line
The .gif says it all.
Newton made six Patriots defenders miss on his way to running nearly 75 yards for a 14-yard gain. Unlike on the first run, when one player was caught out of position allowing a big gain, this time, several Patriots defenders had a chance at him before he was able to escape.
Defensive end Rob Ninkovich had two chances at Newton, missing on the initial contact and again as Newton looped around to evade the rush.
"It's just a tough situation where you got to contain a quarterback that can run the ball, that can throw the ball," he said following the game. "So it's our job as a defensive line to keep him in the pocket. So if we don't do that, bad things happen. And I hold myself accountable for a quarterback that scrambles. That's on everybody on the d-line. We're not supposed to let that happen."
Few quarterbacks other than Newton would be able to pirouette in the pocket, keep their eyes downfield and still find a way to make a play.
For the most part, though, the Patriots did a really good job of keeping Newton in front of them on this play. Only defensive end Chandler Jones ever truly rushed beyond Newton, and that was only after several seconds of dancing around.
Hightower got behind Newton slightly, but gets major props for chasing down the play from all the way across the field.
Fourth quarter, 5:42 remaining, 3rd-and-6 on the Panthers' 21-yard line
At least they tried.
The Patriots defensive line came on a four-man rush, with Ninkovich and Chandler Jones pinching the pocket around Newton.
Pocket awareness is a key for any quarterback, and Newton was able to subtly step up in the pocket to avoid the pressure of the two ends. Once he did that, he simply continued to scramble, seeing an open lane and room in front of him. He ran straight through an arm tackle by defensive tackle Chris Jones and picked up 15 yards before being stopped.
At the second level, Hightower started off in the right spot, but floated toward the middle of the field when wide receiver Brandon LaFell ran a crossing pattern. It's hard to tell if that was his responsibility, but his movement gave Newton a little extra space to run.
The open space in front of Newton was almost always a result of man coverage in the secondary. It was believed that the Patriots would use a spy on Newton to help contain him at the second level, and safety Nate Ebner saw a few snaps in that role, as did linebacker Dane Fletcher.
Executing a game plan flawlessly is hard to do for any stretch of time, but aside from two more games against Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill and Bills quarterback EJ Manuel, the Patriots won't have to deal with a dual-threat like Newton again this season.
Needless to say, there'll be much less of an emphasis on pocket containment and QB Spy duty when Peyton Manning and the Broncos roll into town on Nov. 24.
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