By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots are 3-0, as they should be. The defending champs have faced a Who’s Who of NFL duds this year, with opponents boasting a combined record of 0-9. The Patriots’ average margin of victory has been 30 points — and it’d be even greater if a couple of rookies had not committed a couple of blunders during Sunday’s samba past the punchless Jets.
Three basic wins over three bad teams would not be much reason for celebration, but the Patriots do not have three basic wins. They have three dominant wins. As such, they’re being viewed once again as one of — if not the — best teams in the NFL. Rightfully so.
Those of us in this region who are accustomed to watching the Patriots go anywhere between 12-4 and 14-2 every year for a decade know that this team is assessed and analyzed differently than most teams in most places. The scrutiny may be slightly disproportionate for the Patriots than it would be for other teams sharing a similar record.
With that lengthy preamble out of the way, it’s not all that difficult to find what appears to be the biggest weakness on this year’s team: the run game.
With every NFL team having completed three games thus far, here’s where the Patriots rank in some key rushing categories.
Total rushing yards: 20th
Yards per attempt: 28th
Rushing TDs: 6th
The four rushing touchdowns in three games indicates that the unit can still execute in the red zone — two TD runs have come from the 1-yard line, one has come from the 2-yard line, and the other has come from the 5-yard line — but they also might work to mask some larger problems in the run game.
Sony Michel has the 11th-most carries in the NFL; he also has the 37th-most rushing yards. Rex Burkhead has been more efficient, with 112 yards on 24 carries, but the Patriots’ top two rushers each has what amounts to one solid game … spread out over the course of three games.
In a large sense, this was a struggle that was easy to foresee. The departures of Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen left the Patriots without two of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL (and one of the best blocking tight ends in history, really, with the former). Likewise, the departure of the 6-foot-8, near-400 pound monster known as Trent Brown at left tackle was going to hurt. Losing captain David Andrews just before the season began and then losing Isaiah Wynn to turf toe in Week 2 presented another two major hurdles for Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, Dante Scarnecchia and Ivan Fears to try to clear.
Now you can add the loss of James Develin — almost certainly for the year — and the 2019 Patriots are without five key members of the 2018 rushing attack. Considering last year’s team ranked fifth in the NFL in rushing yards and rushing TDs in the regular season before rolling for a ridiculous 485 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground in three playoff wins, that seems to be a rather significant issue.
As a reminder, the Patriots’ final four touchdowns of their Super Bowl run were a 2-yard rush by Michel, a 2-yard rush by Burkhead, a 4-yard rush by Bukhead, and a 10-yard rush by Michel.
It’s currently not January or February. It’s September, and the upcoming schedule, by most standards, would be considered a little bit soft. The upcoming six weeks should present an opportunity for the offense to work out some of the early kinks before their midseason bye.
While the continuity in backs — Michel, Burkhead and James White remain, with the addition of Damien Harris (to replace receiver/kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson — it would be natural to draw a comparison to last year. McDaniels, though, isn’t looking at it quite the same.
“I think the goal for us is not to replicate what we did last year. It’s to try to figure out how we can be the best version of ourselves this year with the personnel that we have playing and available for us each week this season,” McDaniels said Tuesday on a conference call with reporters. “So, we’re not going to try to force somebody to do something that somebody else did last year. If they’re not suited for it, we’ll try to figure out how to use their strengths to their advantage and to our team’s advantage and try to go out there and be productive offensively with what we have now.”
When it comes to those upcoming six opponents, those teams currently have a combined record of 7-11. The Ravens (third), the Bills (eighth) and the Jets (ninth) have fared well thus far in terms of rushing yards allowed per game, but none of those six teams has proven strong in terms of rushing yards allowed per attempt. The Redskins represent the best, currently ranking ninth, followed by the Bills (14th). No other team ranks in the top 20.
Still, for the Patriots to improve in the run game, it’s going to be more about what they do rather than the opponent in front of them. Looking at some of the unsuccessful runs just from Sunday alone, it’s easy to see that much of the symphony that made last year so successful is just not quite functioning just yet.
Of course, a year ago at this time, the run game was not exactly humming. The overall offensive performances in Week 2 in Jacksonville and Week 3 in Detroit ranked among the worst two-week stretches the Patriots have endured with Brady and McDaniels at the helm. Overall, the Patriots averaged 93 rushing yards per game prior to their Week 11 bye; they averaged 160 rushing yards per game in their final nine.
That improve-as-they-go (and improve-as-they-get-healthier) result would offer some sort of promise for this year’s offense. But again, McDaniels said he’s not entirely concerned with the exploits of the 2018 Patriots.
“None of us are worried about what we did last year or schemes we used,” McDaniels added on Tuesday. “We’re just trying to figure out the best positions to try to put our players in this season, and in particular this week against a really good defense that we’re playing on the road against Buffalo.”
Again, the Patriots are 3-0, and given their schedule, and their defense, and their quarterback, it would be an absolute stunner for them to hit their bye with a record worse than 8-1. But in New England, regular-season records aren’t celebrated all that much. A 16-0 banner collecting dust in some closet inside Gillette Stadium can attest to that, as can a 14-2 season in 2010, and a pair of 13-3 seasons in 2017 and 2011. In New England, the focus is forever and always about January and February. And in that regard, the Patriots have themselves some work to do if they hope to be a complete team come wintertime.