Phil Perry

Pass-happy Patriots still seeking to establish offensive identity

The Patriots' offense has been decidedly unbalanced through two games.

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FOXBORO -- For years, the Patriots have preached balance offensively.

Tom Brady has done it.

"Keeping teams off-balance is really important to great offensive football," Brady said back in 2018. "You can’t throw the ball every down. You can’t run it every down. But if you can do both and throw in play-action pass and some screens and just some different variety of plays, it makes it hard to defend and you’ve got to defend a lot of different players and a lot of different schemes. When we’re not running the ball well, I think that’s really frustrating to everybody."

Josh McDaniels has done it.

"We try to be balanced," he said back in 2017, "and try to do a lot of things well. But right now I’d say we’ve just got to move forward and try to improve the things that we don’t do as well as we’d like to."

Dante Scarnecchia has done it.

"I like attacking the width and depth of the whole defense," Scarnecchia told Next Pats last year. "I like a mix. All line coaches want to run the ball. Don't get me wrong. We all want 150, 200 yards rushing if we can. You run 22, 24 runs in a game, you usually have a good chance of winning it.

"But to do that, you have to have enough effectiveness. The guy calling the plays saying, 'We're going to keep doing this.' As opposed to, 'We're not getting anything, let's go to something else.'"

Bill Belichick is typically more fond of taking a less definitive approach when asked what determines his team’s success offensively. That's what he did when asked about offensive identity Wednesday morning.

“Look, that’ll fluctuate a little bit from game to game," he said. "Do what we think is best each game. Try to score as many points as we can.

"I’d like to score as many points as possible. More than the other team. What do you want to do? Run the ball 50 times? Is that a goal? All right, if you win, great. If you don’t, then, you know. We’ve won games throwing three passes and we’ve won games throwing 50 passes. So do what you need to do to win."

At the moment, however, the Patriots are without a win and decidedly unbalanced.

Mac Jones has attempted more passes than anyone else in the NFL (96), and the Patriots have struggled to run the football with their lead back Rhamondre Stevenson (2.8 yards per carry) through two weeks.

Some of those numbers are skewed to a degree. The Patriots have faced real deficits early against both the Eagles (16-0 in the first quarter) and Dolphins (17-3 at halftime) that have helped dictate the direction of the offense. Hard to get the running game going when A) it's unproductive, and B) you're already behind.

As a result, it's been challenging for the Patriots to establish the kind of identity they would like to have established -- the kind of identity Belichick isn't going to detail at a podium -- at this point in the year.

"We want to be more balanced," Hunter Henry said Wednesday. "We haven't been able to run the football like we've wanted to. Getting behind, I think, that's on us not scoring...

"We've been behind, so we've kind of had to push the tempo a little bit and throw the ball a little bit more. We're not exactly where we want to be, but we're striving every day to get there."

The Patriots may be able to get there with time.

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Getting Trent Brown (missed Week 2 with a concussion) back on the field should help. Getting more live reps for guards Cole Strange and Mike Onwenu (first game action for both in Week 2) should mean less rust and better performances moving forward. Put it all together up front and both the run and pass games should improve.

One-dimensional as the Patriots have been, they've found ways to work around their offensive line issues. One has been their use of "empty" formations, meaning no back in the backfield with Jones working out of the shotgun. They lead the league in attempts out of empty (23) -- a long-time favorite formation of offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien --  and among the 12 teams with at least 10 empty attempts, they're third-best in pressure rate allowed.

That's an indication that the quick-release plays often required out of empty (because there are only five players in protection) are doing what they're supposed to do: keep Jones upright.

"I like empty," Jones said Wednesday. "I think it's good. I think it presents some challenges for the defense depending on the week so sometimes we use it, sometimes we don't.

"Empty is somewhat new to me. I played in the Wing-T in high school so college was the first time I got to go in empty. I like being in the gun a little bit. I like to spread it out, but it depends on the week. We just do things based on what we see and how we can predict the game. When the game comes and it's not looking good in empty, then we change."

With five pass-catchers out running pass patterns, and with a quick-processing quarterback behind center, those empty looks appear to suit Jones well. And the Patriots may continue to lean on them when they see a talented Jets defensive front on Sunday. 

But asking Jones to continue to drop back more than any quarterback in football likely isn’t going to be a recipe for success moving forward. Eventually they’ll need to find tap into a more balanced identity, or at least prove they have the ability to be balanced.

Even if Belichick isn’t willing to admit it.

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