Can we table 16-0 talk? Patriots offense not what it was in one key area


FOXBORO -- The 16-0 conversation is rolling and won't be stopped any time soon. It might be November before the Patriots see competition approaching their level. On that, most of us can agree.

But can we table for the time being all discussions of Bill Belichick and his club going unbeaten? There are myriad reasons as to why. Reasons with which many of you may agree given that 73 percent of you showed serious reservations about -- or outright disdain for -- undefeated buzz in a poll posted Tuesday by NBC Sports Boston Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran.

First, there's the schedule, if you want to look ahead to November. That's no joke. The Patriots may have one of the easiest slates in football, but there's usually a "gauntlet" of games for every great NFL team at some point and theirs appears to start Nov. 3 in Baltimore. After a bye, they'll travel to Philly for another tough one. Then they get the Cowboys, the Texans in Houston and the Chiefs.

As of Wednesday, those teams have seventh, fifth (tied), fifth (tied), ninth and second-best odds behind the Patriots to win Super Bowl LIV. Could they roll through that portion of their schedule 5-0? Sure. Will they?

If you want to point to the kicking game, you could. Stephen Gostkowski had never missed three kicks in a game before Sunday's performance in Miami in which he missed two extra points and a 48-yard field goal.

That, at least at the moment, feels like a stretch to try to project forward and predict that Gostkowski will cost the Patriots a game with a miss. It is possible? Sure. It always has been, though, even when he's been among the league's most accurate kickers. Nature of the job. (Gostkowski made 98 percent of his extra points in 2018, which was the fourth-best mark in football.) If you're concerned you'd certainly be well within your rights, but I'd say there are other places to look. 

The offensive line needs to be considered by anyone thinking that the Patriots are going to travel a paved road lined with "IN DANTE WE TRUST" signs toward 16-0. Dante Scarnecchia is not only arguably the best offensive line coach in the league but the best offensive line coach in the history of the league. He has a resume that should make a serious candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day. But he has his work cut out for him in 2019.

The Patriots have already had 11 different offensive linemen on their active roster, including Russell Bodine, Jermaine Eluemunor, Korey Cunningham, Marshall Newhouse and Caleb Benenoch. That list doesn't include projected starting center David Andrews, who was placed on injured reserve before rosters were cut down to 53 players. The Patriots had seven different offensive line starters last year. They're already up to six through two weeks and could be looking at a seventh different starter next week with Isaiah Wynn on IR and Marcus Cannon dealing with a shoulder injury.

Scarnecchia faced a similar challenge in 2017 when the Patriots needed four different starters at tackle to make the Super Bowl. But the two backups forced to start that year -- LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming -- were players the Patriots had had in their system for multiple years. Eluemunor, Cunningham, Newhouse (who started Week 2 after less than a week in New England) and Benenoch were all brought in following training camp.

The better comparison for the uphill climb facing this unit might be 2015, when the Patriots were decimated by injury had to use 10 different starters, including center Bryan Stork at right tackle for one game. The injuries this season haven't mounted to that extent, but the number of new players trying to integrate themselves quickly into a different (not to mention complicated) scheme poses its own set of challenges.

The nature of the Patriots organization being what it is, something that has been cultivated and carefully manicured over the last two decades by the same people, means there are a few particular tenets to which the team has adhered for a long time.

One of those is the definition of what it means to be a "tough" football team. For the better part of Belichick's tenure, "toughness" has meant an ability to run the ball, stop the run, and cover kicks. If the Patriots were going to be a tough team -- and to get to where they wanted to be, they'd better be tough -- those three things were going to be paramount to their success.

All three have nuances associated with them, but for the purposes of this piece we're going to focus on the first: run the ball.

Through two games -- and this is tied in part to the issues facing the offensive line noted above -- the Patriots have not been able to run at a level similar to that which we saw from them in 2018.

One of the reasons that what the Patriots did with their running game last season was so impressive was because they could run the football even in situations when their opponents knew they'd be running.

That's toughness, as Josh McDaniels has explained it before: "We always talk about trying to be a tough football team," he said back in 2016, "and I think there is no better measure of your toughness on offense than your ability to run the ball when the other team knows you're going to run it."

Last season, even when the Patriots rolled out heavier packages indicating run, they found success. According to Sharp Football Stats, they averaged 4.5 yards per carry out of 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end) and 5.2 yards per carry out of 12 personnel. After the bye week, as the Patriots emphasized the run game more, those numbers jumped to 5.2 yards per carry out of 21 personnel and 6.7 yards per carry out of 12 personnel.

This year? It's a small sample, but they're averaging 2.8 yards per attempt out of 28 carries with "21" on the field. They only have five rushing attempts with "12" on the field, and they average 1.6 yards per attempt with that look.

In Week 2, against a Dolphins defense that allowed 9.4 yards per carry on seven "21" attempts against the Ravens in Week 1, the Patriots averaged 3.4 yards per carry on 13 attempts out of "21."

Let's keep things in perspective: The Patriots have outscored their opponents 76-3 through two games. If their run game isn't dynamite, it hasn't had to be. Football Outsiders rates the Patriots passing game as the third-most efficient in the NFL, according to their DVOA metric. Pro Football Focus has their passing game graded as the second-best in the league. They're fourth in the NFL in yards per pass attempt (9.8), fifth in pass yards per game and fifth in quarterback rating.

They'll take that.

But there are issues with relying on the passing game with this particular Patriots group. Two of their top three receivers -- Josh Gordon and Antonio Brown -- have off-field situations that could threaten their availability. Plus, with a changing offensive line, dropping Tom Brady behind center 40 times a game carries with it more risk than the Patriots might be willing to bear. (The Patriots are 21st in pass attempts through two weeks.)

"I think they're trying to do the best they can," Belichick said of his offensive line. "There's some moving parts there. Some of them anticipated or had a chance to plan for, some happened rather quickly and you have to react to those. But yeah, that group is a hardworking group. They've communicated well together and the guys with more experience helping some of the guys with less experience, but overall we've just tried to take it day-by-day and do the things that we can do. We can't do everything, but we can do the things that we feel confident in, that we're able to practice and prepare for and hopefully we can do a good job of those as we're starting to expand overall with that group."

The Patriots can't do everything. But they could try to run it better than they have in order to try to protect their linemen and, more importantly, their quarterback. They are, by many measures, a below-average running team through two weeks.

They're sixth in attempts and 13th in rush yards, but they're 25th in the league in terms of yards per carry (3.5). 

They haven't been an explosive team, with their longest run measuring 12 yards. There are 33 backs who have runs of 13 yards or longer and only three teams (Miami, Cincinnati and Washington) haven't had a rush of 12 yards. 

Rex Burkhead has been their most dynamic back after contact, averaging 4.1 yards per carry after contact (8th best mark in the league). James White is the team's next best after-contact runner, with 2.0 yards per attempt after contact (46th), while Sony Michel averages 1.7 yards per attempt after contact (52nd).

Football Outsiders has the Patriots down as the 18th most efficient rush offense in football through two weeks. Pro Football Focus has the Patriots graded as their 24th rush team and 31st run-blocking team in the NFL.

"I thought we took some steps forward in the running game this last week, but there's definitely room for improvement," McDaniels said when asked if defenses have focused on stopping the Patriots run game after they used it so efficiently last season. "They look at tape of last year's team, but I think last year's team is different than this year's team, so the strengths and weaknesses of those two teams are a little different. We're still evolving and developing, as I'm sure every other team in the league is, and we're going to continue to try to do the things that we feel best about doing with our guys that are healthy and available on a weekly basis, and try to improve in every area of our offense. That's what the goal is, and that's what our guys are working hard to do each week."

One area of the run game where the Patriots have been decidedly successful through two weeks has been their situational running. As it's been pointed out by Five Thirty Eight, there are three situations in which -- despite the growing importance of the passing game -- it is still valuable to be able to run effectively: at the goal line; in non-goal line short-yardage situations; and at the ends of games when in possession of leads.

The Patriots success rate as far as those are concerned has been solid.

They're 2-for-3 at the goal line (all three attempts came in Miami), and they've converted a whopping 9-for-10 when facing three yards or fewer for a first down.

In the fourth quarters of their wins over the Steelers and Dolphins, the Patriots have had mixed results. In Week 1, they had four successful rushes (first-down conversions or runs of four yards or more) on nine attempts. In Week 2, they had just one successful run on five attempts and lost a fumble.

Overall, thanks in part to their situational success, the Patriots have a 55 percent success rate in running the football, per Sharp Football Stats. That's good enough for the fifth-best rushing rate in football. Only Houston, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and the Giants are better through two weeks.

The Patriots are certainly talented enough to run the table. But if you're willing to acknowledge that a) there is a challenging portion of their schedule, b) the shuffling along their offensive line could be an issue, and c) their running game isn't yet what it was last season, then, as good as this team is, you'd acknowledge there are barriers to 16-0. Not that that will do anything to stop the runaway train that is the undefeated conversation.

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