By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots are 8-1. Things are mostly pretty good for the team atop the AFC standings.
Still, this is New England, where the standard is understandably higher than it might be in most other NFL locales. Such is the case in a land where common belief dictates that the season does not begin until conference championship weekend.
And it is through that frame that it’s worth spotlighting some numbers and trends from the offense that have to raise a few eyebrows here during the bye week.
In terms of raw numbers, you’d be hard-pressed to find a problem on either side of the ball. The defense is, obviously, functioning at an otherworldly level, even with its most recent presentation being a bit of a disappointment. The Patriots rank first in the NFL in points allowed per game, at 10.9, and they rank second in the NFL in yards allowed per game, at 249.3. They lead the league in interceptions, total takeaways, and third-down defense (by a mile). All good there.
In terms of scoring, the Patriots rank second in the NFL in points per game with an even 30. They rank 15th in yards per game, with 366.8. You may look at that and consider that the Patriots generally have had much shorter fields to work with when gaining possession, thanks to that dominant defense. That may be a factor, but it hardly explains why the Patriots rank right in the middle of the pack when it comes to moving the football.
The four defensive touchdowns and two special teams touchdowns account for almost 20 percent of the team’s total touchdowns, too, so that 30 points per game number is a bit deceiving from an offensive standpoint.
And when it comes to efficiency, the 2019 Patriots are stunningly far behind the place that the 2018 Patriots finished the regular season. The area of particular concern involves yards per play, both on the ground and through the air.
Through nine games thus far, the Patriots average just 3.30 yards per rushing play. That ranks third-worst in the NFL, better than only Cincinnati and Miami. Those two teams are a combined 1-15, so that’s not really the type of company that a Super Bowl contender wants to keep. Last year, the Patriots averaged 4.26 yards per rushing play, almost a full yard better, ranking them 20th in the league.
While Tom Brady may be continuing to defy Father Time, the offense still has had issues in the passing game. They’re averaging 6.85 yards per pass play, which ranks 18th in the NFL. A year ago, they averaged 7.42 yards per pass play, which put them inside the top 10 at No. 8. (We know what happened in the playoffs, when they ran for 485 yards and nine touchdowns in three games.)
Put it together, and the Patriots are averaging 5.25 yards per play, which ranks 21st in the NFL. They finished last season with an average of 5.87 yards per play, ranking them ninth in the NFL.
YARDS PER RUSHING PLAY
2019: 3.30, 30th
2018: 4.26, 20th
YARDS PER PASSING PLAY
2019: 6.85, 18th
2018: 7.42, 8th
YARDS PER PLAY
2019: 5.25, 21st
2018: 5.87, 9th
Last year, we learned that the Patriots don’t need to boast the league’s best offense in order to win a championship. But it clearly has to be a bit better than the product the Patriots are currently putting on the field every week.
Obviously, we understand there are explanations for some level of backsliding. Rob Gronkowski retired, removing an all-time talent from the field, both in terms of pass catching and run blocking. Dwayne Allen, another excellent blocker at the tight end spot, left as well. The tight end spot has been slightly bolstered by the return of Ben Watson, but it remains a weakness on the roster.
Add in the loss of Trent Brown to free agency, the loss of Isaiah Wynn for all but five quarters of the season thus far, the loss of center David Andrews for the year, the addition of street free agent Marshall Newhouse at left tackle and the implementation of the inexperienced Ted Karras at center, and season-ending injuries to both James Develin and Jakob Johnson at the fullback spot, and a dip is to be expected.
Still, the steep drop is nevertheless a bit eyebrow-raising, particularly when you consider that the Patriots have only faced two defenses that rank in the top six in terms of yards allowed per play. By contrast, they’ve played against four teams that rank in the bottom 12 of the league.
OPPOSING DEFENSES YARDS PER PLAY, RANKING
PITTSBURGH: 5.06, 6th
MIAMI: 6.32, 31st
NEW YORK JETS (TWICE): 5.20, 9th
BUFFALO: 4.86, 3rd
WASHINGTON: 5.54, 17th
NEW YORK GIANTS: 6.08, 26th
CLEVELAND BROWNS: 5.72, 20th
BALTIMORE RAVENS: 6.01, 24th
Since putting up 442 yards of offense and 33 points against Washington, the Patriots’ offense hasn’t exactly dominated against the four mediocre-to-subpar defenses that have followed.
Vs. New York Giants: 427 yards, 21 points
Giants’ Defense Average: 391.4 yards, 28.3 points
Vs. New York Jets: 323 yards, 31 points
Jets’ Defense Average: 352.3 yards, 26.4 points
Vs. Cleveland Browns: 318 yards, 20 points
Browns’ Defense Average: 357.5 yards, 25.6 points
Vs. Baltimore Ravens: 342 yards, 20 points
Ravens’ Defense Average: 348.8 yards, 22 points
(Only offensive points included for the Patriots, while all points allowed were included for defensive averages.)
For a team that opened the year by putting up 33 points and gaining 465 yards against a Pittsburgh defense that now ranks sixth in the NFL in yards allowed per play and 12th in points allowed, that’s not exactly trending in the right direction.
The Patriots do have some matchups that look slightly favorable on paper late in the year, against defenses from Houston, Cincinnati and Miami that rank at or near the bottom of most categories. That stretch is balanced, though, with games against Buffalo and Dallas.
As is usually the case, though, there is reason for some optimism for Josh McDaniels’ and Tom Brady’s offense. The bye week likely helps everybody from a physical standpoint, and the return of N’Keal Harry (likely next weekend) and then Wynn (in Week 12) will provide an infusion of much-needed talent. The addition of Mohamed Sanu got off to a fast start, as the veteran receiver turned in just the second 10-catch performance of his entire career on just his 13th day as a member of the Patriots organization.
The run game may have less reason for bullishness, but Wynn should help some. And if Sony Michel fails to improve upon his 3.3-yard average, the Patriots could turn to rookie Damien Harris for an influx of youth and energy. With just four carries to his name this year, the eighth-leading rusher in Alabama history should be carrying some fresh legs into the stretch run and could prove useful in boosting the ground game.
Whether or not any of that happens? Well, it’s football. If it was that easy to predict the future, we all probably wouldn’t dedicate 17 or so hours to watching the sport every week.
What is known now, though, is that if the Patriots want to get their offense to a championship level before the “season” actually begins, there’s quite a bit of work to do.