Patriots Report Card: Cam Newton earns an ‘A’ in team debut

The Patriots’ season opener came down to two plays.

Midway through the fourth quarter Sunday, ahead 14-11, Cam Newton took a shotgun snap facing fourth-and-1 on the doorstep of the Dolphins’ end zone. He sped left behind a pulling guard and bowled his way forward for four yards. First down.

On the next play, fronted by six offensive linemen and two tight ends, Newton ducked under center, then whirled back with the ball and handed it to Sony Michel. Following fullback Jakob Johnson, he put the game away. Touchdown.

The Patriots defense, despite losing its top three pass-rushers from a year ago, wasn’t about to cough up a 10-point lead to a depleted Miami offense with minutes left. Once J.C. Jackson plucked Ryan Fitzpatrick’s third interception out of the air, it was over. Newton and the Pats had delivered a sound statement win, understanding their season together will be played entirely on proving grounds, much like those moments at the goal line were.

From Week 1 until the final gun, it’s about proving to the league you are who you’ve been.

Here are the position-by-position grades from the Pats’ season-opening win:

Quarterbacks: A

Almost perfect.

It’s the only way to describe Newton’s performance within Sunday’s game plan, which dictated passing would serve as a complement to a run game. Newton executed several new run designs with proper reads and punishing power. He led the Pats with 75 rushing yard and two touchdowns.

As a passer, he delivered an accurate ball on every pass, save for two throwaways under pressure. He applied the necessary touch on a variety of distinct throws: screens, slants, digs, swing passes and crossers. Newton also grew more comfortable as a signal-caller, once checking to a wide receiver screen against an incoming blitz in the third quarter.

The Patriots should be encouraged they can put more on his plate as soon as next week.

Running backs: B+

All four running backs eclipsed 20 yards rushing in a remarkably balanced effort. Rex Burkhead played the best game, while Sony Michel took the most carries and undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor posted the highest yards per carry average. As expected, James White served as Newton’s primary receiving outlet with three catches for 30 yards.

None of the backs came close to ripping off a game-breaking run, but all ran smoothly within the new option plays designed to capitalize on Newton’s rushing ability. Wider running lanes, created by Newton’s presence and a healthy, top-10 offensive line should continue to sprout in the foreseeable future. And if these four continue to provide a wall in blitz pickup, as they did Sunday, the remarkable balance of playing time and production may be here to stay — even when Damien Harris returns from injury.

Wide receivers: C

Julian Edelman was limited to 58% of the offense’s snaps, likely hampered by the knee injury that limited him for two practices during the week. Nonetheless, he tied for the team lead in receptions (5) and receiving yards (57) and sped 23 yards on a jet sweep that sparked the Pats’ final touchdown drive. Edelman was spared most of his run-blocking duties, seeing the field mostly on passing plays.

Unfortunately, he was the lone bright spot out wide. Most of N’Keal Harry’s five catches were scheme-generated plays, including the catch before his fumble that could have cost the Patriots a win. It’s not Harry’s fault the league rule on fumbles bouncing through the end zone is terrible, but the importance of ball security cannot be overstated now playing within a slower, run-focused offense.

Elsewhere, Damiere Byrd was totally invisible, despite playing 88% of snaps, as was Jakobi Meyers during his seven plays.

Tight ends: B-

Who would have thought Ryan Izzo would account for the Pats’ longest offensive play?

On a patented Patriots play-action design, Izzo secured Newton’s second completion on a long over route in the first quarter. Tailed by Dolphins linebacker Jerome Baker after the initial fake, Izzo smartly uncovered by braking at midfield, where he caught a laser and veered into Miami territory for a 25-yard gain. While it finished as his only reception, Izzo proved plenty serviceable as a blocker, which may be more important than pass-caitching within the new offense. His crack block on the Pats’ first touchdown helped Newton go untouched into the end zone.

Rookie Devin Asiasi made a quiet debut.

Offensive line: A-

Offensive tackles Isaiah Wynn and Jermaine Eluemunor posted clean sheets, a huge development for a Pats’ offensive line with a solid interior and big plans for 2020.

Center David Andrews surrendered one sack, though it was more a function of defensive excellence by Baker than offensive failure. Left guard Joe Thuney allowed one QB hit and a run-stuff, while his counterpart on the right side, Shaq Mason, was dinged for one run-stuff. Rookie Michael Onwenu subbed for Eluemunor on multiple drives and served as an extra tight end in jumbo sets. He was impressive, delivering a couple of pancake blocks and keeping the Pats’ success rate perfect in short-yardage.

They were not stopped on third-and-short or at the goal line all day.

Defensive line: C+

Defensive tackles Adam Butler and Xavier Williams — who was promoted from the practice squad Saturday — were pushed around too often in run defense and provided little push as pass-rushers. Lawrence Guy held steady, but failed to generate any pressure. The only hurry from this group belonged to Deatrich Wise Jr., who showed marked improvement as a run defender.

The Pats played well enough versus a so-so Dolphins offensive line, but Sunday’s performance won’t suffice in tougher matchups down the road.

Linebackers: B

Inside linebacker J’aWhaun Bentley tied outside rushers Chase Winovich and John Simon with a pair of pressures. Simon crushed Fitzpatrick on his hit, while Winovich proved more disruptive against the run. He also played nose tackle in the Pats’ goal-line package, where his burst off the line won two of three snaps against Miami’s interior linemen. Winovich drew center Ted Karras on the other.

In place of rookie Josh Uche — ruled inactive for reasons unknown — Brandon Copeland paired with Bentley in base defense. Rookie Anfernee Jennings acquitted himself well in a handful of snaps.

Defensive backs: B+

No player endured highs and lows Sunday quite like Stephon Gilmore, who snagged an interception and single-handedly kept two Dolphin drives alive with pass interference penalties. He committed his first on a third-and-short snap, then a fourth-down play late in the game that could have ended Miami’s chances. Gilmore also allowed four catches.

On the opposite side, J.C. Jackson surrendered a single catch and polished the win off with a pick. His coverage was strong from start to finish. Jonathan Jones and Jason McCourty both took snaps in the slot and at safety. Adrian Phillips missed a team-high two tackles, but looked like a natural in Belichick’s defense, playing several roles as Patrick Chung would’ve. Joejuan Williams successfully blanketed Miami tight end Mike Gesicki, allowing one catch. Top pick Kyle Dugger was solid.

Special teams: B+

Aside from Nick Folk’s missed 45-yard field goal and Byrd’s early muff caused by Jackson stumbling back into him, nothing more could have been asked from these units.

Punter Jake Bailey dropped every punt inside the 20-yard line, as his coverage team swarmed Jakeem Grant for a 3-yard loss inside Miami’s 10-yard during the second quarter. Free-agent addition Cody Davis was first on the scene to tackle Grant. Bailey also induced four touchbacks.

That said, the Pats’ kicking situation will bite them soon if it continues to be unsettled.

Coaching: A-

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels drew up a masterful game plan, easing Newton into the passing game by involving play-action on 50% of his dropbacks. His new run designs — zone-read, power-read and quarterback power — were executed seamlessly. The unbalanced lines, with six offensive linemen, also sent an unmistakable message that the Patriots believed they could bully Miami.

They did.

Defensively, the Pats mixed their looks on third-and-longs, alternating between dropping eight and blitzing. Fitzpatrick flailed against these looks, throwing two picks against pressure. He was also largely contained as a scrambler. Great day for the staff.

Head of the class

QB Cam Newton He’ll post better single-game numbers soon, but he’ll be hard-pressed to play a cleaner game this season than he did Sunday.

P Jake Bailey Three punts, all downed inside the 20. No doubt about it, Bailey did his job.

CB Joejuan Williams After a lose rookie season, Williams may have found a home as a tight end specialist. He allowed one catch to Gesicki on three targets for nine yards, while adding the pass deflection that set up Jackson’s game-sealing interception.

Back of the pack

WR N’Keal Harry The fumble could have been a game-changer, and there were instances where Harry could have finished plays much better. The good news is he’s likely to bounce back.

WR Damiere Byrd He faced a difficult matchup outside against Byron Jones, but Byrd can’t play more games without making a single catch.

S Terrence Brooks Brooks allowed three receptions and committed a pass interference penalty (however questionable) in the end zone that ushered Miami up to the 1-yard line.

More: Patriots Report Card: Cam Newton earns an ‘A’ in team debut