The New England Patriots are almost out of time to figure out their identity this season on offense. Perhaps the answer came Week 9 against the Ravens?
It’s very seductive to buy into the narrative that the “real season” for the New England Patriots doesn’t begin until January. After all, since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady arrived, the team has qualified for the playoffs in 16 of 19 years – only missing out on the postseason in 2000, 2002, and 2008.
On the surface, the 20th season of the Brady/Belichick tandem appears to be more of the same. At 8-1 coming off their bye, the Patriots are once again well-positioned to return to the postseason. They have a one-game lead over the Ravens, they have a two-game lead over the Texans and the Bills, they have a two-and-a-half-game lead over the Chiefs, and they have a three-game or more lead over everybody else in the conference.
And yet this Patriots team feels a bit vulnerable in 2019.
The defense was positively dominant during a historic eight-game start to the season, but has cooled off just a tad these past couple weeks after surrendering 50 points and nearly 270 combined rushing yards against the Browns and the Ravens. The offense has been rickety all season, with a revolving door of stopgaps at wide receiver and tight end as coordinator Josh McDaniels has attempted to overcome a talent drain at both positions.
Making matters worse, the offensive line has been dotted with injuries to significant players like David Andrews, Isaiah Wynn, Marcus Cannon, and Shaq Mason, only half of whom have played most of the snaps this year for their team. Even Brady, who normally does such a nice job of masking the weaknesses around him on the roster, has had a tough go of it this year, admitting he’s been frustrated with inconsistencies on his side of the ball.
Thankfully, New England hasn’t really had to sweat many of the games on their schedule this season, facing a slew of backups and inexperienced quarterbacks through the first couple months of fall and mostly feasting on all of them. That changed in Week 9 on the road against a very game opponent in the Ravens, and it probably won’t get much easier for the defending champs as they now get ready to take on the Eagles, Cowboys, Texans, and Chiefs over the course of the next month.
The margin for error will decrease dramatically, just as it did in Baltimore. The Patriots are still Super Bowl contenders and one of the better all-around teams in the NFL this year, but they can’t afford to rely solely on their defense to bail them out any longer… not against the likes of MVP-caliber players like Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes.
New England should be fine if they figure out a rhythm on offense and elevate that unit to the same level the defense and special teams have been playing on since early September. Perhaps that all starts with analyzing when they’ve had most of their success on offense this season, and then attempting to replicate what they did during those moments on a more consistent basis moving forward.
Part of what’s made the Patriots a dynasty these past two decades has been their chameleon-like ability to transform their offense on a weekly basis in order to best attack their specific opponent. Even still, patterns usually emerge at some point.
In 2007, New England aired it out all year – partly to help Brady and Randy Moss break records, but mainly because that was the best way for them to score points and win football games. In 2018 – especially later on in the year – New England became a ball-control, power-running team, simply because that’s what started to work best for them and what helped neutralize explosive offenses like the Chiefs, Chargers, and Rams.
This year, the Patriots probably wanted to continue doing what they did best at the end of last year, but it just hasn’t worked for them so far. The offensive line isn’t as good at run-blocking, Rob Gronkowski and James Develin aren’t around to help open rushing lanes, and Sony Michel is perhaps the biggest disappointment of 2019 for New England.
What has worked for the Pats – admittedly in a very small sample size – was when the team went with their hurry-up offense against the Ravens in Week 9. Forgoing the huddle and essentially abandoning the run for most of 60 minutes, Brady orchestrated a surprisingly efficient offense that had no real difficulty moving the ball down the field once New England switched tactics towards the end of the second quarter.
The first three drives for the Patriots all ended in punts, with none of them taking up more than 1:48 of game time, lasting longer than four plays, or gaining more than nine yards. Then former Patriot Cyrus Jones muffed a punt for Baltimore, and suddenly New England was energized. They scored a touchdown with the excellent field position they inherited, then had seven more offensive drives in the game.
Of those seven drives, all of them lasted at least six plays and all but two of them gained 25 yards or more. Most importantly, the Patriots converted three of those seven drives into points, and may have cashed at least one more drive into either a touchdown or a field goal if Julian Edelman hadn’t fumbled at the Baltimore 30-yard line.
New England moved the ball seemingly at will on Baltimore that Sunday night once they went up-tempo. Granted, the Ravens defense is well below-average against the pass, but it’s still an exhibit worth examining if you’re McDaniels or Belichick this season.
Maybe Michel and the run game get going at some point this winter, but for now, the best parts of this Patriots offense are undoubtedly Tom Brady and the receivers he’s throwing to: Julian Edelman, Mohamed Sanu, Phillip Dorsett, and James White, especially. That’s not as talented or awe-inspiring a supporting cast as Brady has had at times in his career, but it’s also a better group than what he had when he won those first three Super Bowls, too.
McDaniels has admitted in the past that he favors more of a spread passing attack in his offense than an old-school, run-first approach anyway. Now’s his chance to prove it. He has a versatile group of running backs who can receive and a pair of wide receivers who can throw – why not lean in to all that and start running a more explosive, fast-paced offense with the multi-dimensional weapons you have at your disposal?
Now’s as good a time as any to give it a shot and see what happens against the Philadelphia Eagles this week and their blitz-happy defense. If it works, the Patriots may have finally found their groove on offense this season – and right in the nick of time, too, with the playoffs just around the corner.