Cam Newton’s splits against the AFC East represent a relatively small sample size — eight regular-season games for the 31-year-old — but the one thing that jumps off the page is the fact that the Bills, Dolphins and Jets will have to alter their defensive approach in 2020 in hopes of slowing the Patriots’ new quarterback.
For almost 20 years, the challenge was figuring out a way to disrupt Tom Brady while he was in the pocket. Now? It’ll be accounting for Newton’s mobility.
While Newton’s accuracy can be called into question — his 59 percent completion rate in eight games against AFC East teams is a tick below his career 60 percent average — his biggest weapon against the rest of his new divisional rivals will come on the ground.
Newton, who is 7-1 in his career against the AFC East, has 52 carries for 334 rushing yards and three touchdowns in eight career games against the Patriots, Bills, Dolphins, and Jets. For Newton, that 6.42 yards per carry average is the best against any division in the league.
Newton has faced the Patriots twice in his career, with the Panthers winning both.
Newton’s best rushing efforts against the AFC East came in a 2017 game against the Dolphins where he had five carries for 95 yards in a 45-21 victory, and a 2013 contest against Miami where he had 51 yards on seven carries in a 20-16 win. (In all, Newton’s 12.17 yards per carry average against Miami is the best of any opponent he’s faced since he entered the league.)
When it comes to the Jets and Bills, he’s struggled statistically at times, but he’s still 3-1 combined against those two opponents. Historically, New York has appeared to do a good job keeping him off balance as a passer. His 51.9 combined completion percentage in two games against the Jets is the third-worst against any opponent he’s faced in his career. (He’s at 48.3 percent against the Chargers and 51.7 against the Texans, both of who he’s faced twice in his career.)
In two career games against the Bills, Newton is 1-1, with a 59 completion rate, two touchdowns, one interception, and 457 passing yards. In addition, he was sacked a total of 12 times in those two games, most of any opponent in the AFC, and his rushing totals – 9 combined carries for 42 total yards – are fairly pedestrian when you consider the rest of his yardage totals.
Buffalo head coach Sean McDermott knows Newton better than most, as he spent six seasons as the Carolina defensive coordinator – the first six years of Newton’s NFL career. After a 2017 game between the Panthers and Bills, one that Newton and Carolina won, 9-3, the quarterback acknowledged McDermott might know him better than some opposing coaches.
“Sean McDermott has an unbelievable defense,” Newton told reporters after the game. “Very stout up front. Guys in the secondary that can make plays and will make plays. Hell, you’ve got guys in the secondary that were with [Carolina in 2016]. Anytime you’re with a person multiple years, six years to be exact, he knows things that can ruffle the feathers.”
While it can be dicey to try and project 2020 totals based on 2019 stats, it’s worth noting the Dolphins and the Bills were very good at containing quarterbacks on the ground last year. Miami was second in the league in terms of rushing yards allowed vs. quarterbacks, yielding 128 yards on 41 total carries. Meanwhile, Buffalo was fourth-best in the league, finishing with 155 yards allowed on 56 carries. (For some context, the Vikings were best with 92 yards allowed on 26 carries.)
Ultimately, a healthy Newton will bring a wide array of talent to the AFC East, and he’ll have a new set of offensive options around him, including the deepest backfield of his career and veteran pass catcher Julian Edelman. Defensive coordinators from Orchard Park to South Florida will be tasked with the prospect of slowing the speedy quarterback. Whether or not they’ll figure out a way to contain him will go a long way toward determining how the AFC East will shake out in 2020.