FOXBORO -- The Patriots made a statement late in the fourth quarter facing a critical third down.
It wasn't that Tom Brady is still at the height of his powers despite being 40 years old. It wasn't that Brandin Cooks has quickly become a trusted target in critical make-or-break situations. Those came later.
The statement that the Patriots made during a third-and-one play with about six minutes remaining in the game was that -- in that moment, at least -- they didn't trust their running game to pick up three feet.
At their own 16-yard line, down 30-28, the Patriots needed one yard to move the chains and breathe life into a potential go-ahead drive. Instead of plowing forward with running back Mike Gillislee, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels dialed up a pass play that went incomplete to Rob Gronkowski.
The decision spoke volumes.
Through three games this season, the Patriots have converted once when facing third-and-one (1-for-4) or fourth-and-one (0-for-2).
"We’ve got to obviously do a better job of coaching it and a better job of executing it and be better in that situation," Bill Belichick said on Wednesday. "I mean, that’s a key situation. If you can’t get a yard in this league, then that’s going to eventually catch up to you. It already has, but it will continue to be a problem if we’re not able to get that yard offensively.
"Defensively, percentages are with the offense in that situation, so a stop there is a big stop. But, realistically, you’re not going to be 80 percent on defense in that situation. Offensively, that’s where you’d like to be."
The Patriots aren't close to where they'd like to be. They failed on two third-and-one opportunities in their win over the Texans, both coming in the fourth quarter. Before the late-game third-down attempt to Gronkowski, on the previous drive, the Patriots handed to Gillislee on the Patriots 34-yard line to pick up a yard. Left tackle Nate Solder gave ground to Texans defensive lineman Christian Covington, and Gillislee was stopped for no gain.
Against the Chiefs in Week 1, Gillislee was stopped twice on fourth-and-one runs in Kansas City territory.
In his first season with the Patriots, Gillislee's ability to run through contact (1.8 yards after contact per carry) hasn't been what it was in 2016 (3.3). He's made four tacklers miss on 45 attempts this season, a rate that's down from last year when he made 16 tacklers miss on 101 attempts with the Bills, per Pro Football Focus.
But having limited space near the line of scrimmage seems to have inhibited Gillislee's ability to create yards on his own.
"I mean, in the end, it usually comes down to fundamentals," Belichick said. "You’ve got to block them, or you’ve got to defeat a block and make the play. The numbers are the numbers. I mean, nobody’s going to run a play and cut a guy loose in the hole, so the guy that you let go is usually the guy furthest away from the play. It doesn’t mean he’s out of the play, but it’s usually the guy furthest away who has the point of attack. Whoever knocks the line of scrimmage back is probably going to have an edge on the play.
"The passing game can factor in there, too. Sometimes if you don’t need a lot of yardage, you’re kind of reluctant to go through putting the ball in the air, protecting, running routes and all that when he can just hand it off for a yard, but you’ve got to be able to make that yard."
The Patriots must have felt like they couldn't make a yard late in the fourth quarter by running against the Texans. Playing against a front with less talent than Houston's may give them more confidence going forward. So should the return of Marcus Cannon (dealing with a concussion and ankle injury), whenever that happens.
But until Patriots backs and linemen prove they can execute in short-yardage situations, McDaniels may continue to lean on Brady's arm in those spots. To this point, his running game hasn't left him much choice.