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Sunday Night Football Preview

Sunday Night Football: Deep Dive

by Warren Sharp
Updated On: September 16, 2020, 5:53 pm ET

There were so many questions entering the season as to how well Cam Newton would perform as a passer.  Week 1 did not disappoint.  On early downs in the game’s first three quarters, Newton averaged 8.5 YPA with a 76% success rate.  That was up from 6.6 YPA and a 49% success rate from Tom Brady last year.  

One of the best things the Patriots did was to simply avoid third downs by performing well on early downs.  Only 9.5% of Camp’s attempts were on third down.  Compare that to Tom Brady last year, who was up at 27%.  A big difference was on second down.  In 2019, Brady averaged 7.7 air yards on second down targets.  These delivered a 44% success rate and 6.1 YPA.  But in 2020, Cam threw the ball just 3.4 yards downfield.  He completed more passes and recorded a 71% success rate with 7.9 YPA.  Having such productivity on second down absolutely helped to avoid third downs.

The Patriots were extremely conservative offensively with the run game, in part due to Cam’s designed runs.  All told, in the first half of the game they went 39% pass on early downs, the lowest rate in the NFL (average was 54% pass).  Compare that to 2019 with Brady, where they were 56% pass, the 7th highest rate in the NFL.

On the other side of the ball, the Seahawks went the total opposite direction.  A more conservative offense in 2019, which passed the ball only 51% of the time on early downs in the first half, went 67% pass in 2020.  That tied for the second highest pass rate in the NFL.

Last year, 37% of Wilson’s pass attempts came on first down in the game’s first three quarters.  These passes were targeted 8.4 yards downfield.  He delivered a solid 60% success rate and 7.1 YPA.  But in Week 1, 46% of Wilson’s pass attempts came on first down, and they were only 5.5 yards downfield.  These throws were easier to complete but came at a time when the defense was expecting run (first down) and these passes averaged a 75% success rate with 8.4 YPA.

It will be interesting to see what the Patriots do to adjust, knowing the cat is out of the bag, so to speak.  New England now knows that the Patriots are likely to pass more often but less aggressively on first down, something the Falcons were completely unprepared for.  While the Patriots are still without multiple players that opted out defensively, they were dominant against the Dolphins in week 1.  

Clearly, though, the Seattle offense is far more aggressive.  Russell Wilson has covered two of his three meetings against Bill Belichick, and has averaged 26 points per game, with all three sneaking over the total (but by very narrow margins).

Since hiring Pete Carroll in 2010, the Seahawks have a league-best 15-1 record (12-4 ATS) at home in the month of September. Over that same span under Carroll, Seattle is tied for a league-best 19-3 record (16-5-1 ATS) in home prime time games.  

Whether or not Seattle is able to stay aggressive with the passing game will go a long way to determining this game’s outcome.  Should they revert at all to the more conservative style, it’s tough to envision this game eclipsing the 45 point total.  Particularly considering the Newton-centric early down rushing approach from the Patriots.  The key weakness for the Seahawks has been their pass rush.  They ranked 22nd against the pass week 1 vs the Falcons, and 19th in sack rate.  

Meanwhile, Seattle's run defense ranked 8th best in the league.  New England should look to pass the ball more against the Seattle weaker pass defense, but it’s unlikely they will deviate much from their prior strategy unless the run game gets shut down.

Warren Sharp

Warren Sharp is a football betting analyst for NBC Sports. As a leading voice in football analytics, Warren writes a yearly book previewing the upcoming season from all angles at his Sharp Football Analysis website. You can follow Warren Sharp on Twitter @SharpFootball.