The Patriots found themselves in a vicious cycle on Monday night. Bill Belichick called it "a spiral that you don't want to be in."
What happened against the Dolphins defense was an argument for why the running game in a pass-happy league still matters: The Patriots couldn't run the ball effectively, which impacted their ability to come up with manageable third downs, which destroyed their third-down conversion rate, which limited the number of plays the Patriots had to possess the football, deploy multiple looks, keep Miami off-balance and build momentum. And with the Patriots behind in the second half, they felt they couldn't waste time banging their heads into a wall trying to make the running game work.
- Brady unable to get comfortable without security blanket Gronkowski
- CURRAN: Dolphins turn Patriots into just another team
- Patriots lament lack of energy after loss to Dolphins
- CURRAN'S Patriots-Dolphins preview/review
The result was a staggering series of statistics, including 10 total rushes (just two in the second half) for 25 yards and an 0-for-11 showing on third down.
"Well, the biggest problem with the running game is the production," Belichick said on a conference call on Tuesday. "I mean, nobody around here minds calling running plays if we're gaining yardage on them, but when we're not gaining yardage it makes it hard to call...We couldn’t run the ball, couldn’t convert on third down, so don’t have another set of downs to try to get it going again to make enough positive plays in the passing game to avoid third down, or in some cases to get it close enough to have a reasonable chance to convert on third down."
"We haven't had any games this year when we've been that out of balance," Josh McDaniels said. "That's never our intention. We didn't have that intention going into the game. To me, the bottom line is we gotta produce in whatever we're doing, and we didn't do a good enough job in anything that we did on any down. First and 10. Second down. Third down. None of those situations were productive on a consistent basis. When you get into that situation, you find yourself becoming one-dimensional as the game rolls along. It just goes back to execution and being able to produce offensively in whatever you call. You gotta be able to make yards and stay in optimal down-and-distance situations to try to possess the ball much longer than we did yesterday, stay on the field, convert . . . and ultimately strike the right balance as the game goes along."
Rex Burkhead had four rushes of two yards or fewer. His only other run, a touchdown in the second quarter, went for three yards. Dion Lewis fared better in terms of average (five carries, 17 yards), but he had two failed first-down carries - one for two yards and one for a loss of four.
"Some of the negative plays in the running game are like sacks," Belichick explained. "They come up with second-and-14, second-and-13. On several of those plays, we had everybody blocked on paper but didn’t execute the blocks so then we had a negative play. It wasn’t like we had a guy that we didn’t have accounted for. We accounted for him but something happened and we weren’t able to get him, so we ended up with a negative play and now we're in long yardage, so it was a lot of factors that went into it.
"Bottom line was we didn’t have a good night offensively in really any area and we were probably fortunate to have the points that we had with a couple of big plays and gained a lot of yards in a few plays. That was probably the best thing that we did, but our overall consistency in the running game and in the passing game wasn’t at a winning level. That’s obvious."
Lewis, who has been the team's most dynamic runner in recent weeks, didn't see his first carry until the second quarter. Behind good blocks from James Develin and Joe Thuney, he picked up 11 yards and it looked like the Patriots might have something to work off of with their bigger personnel on the field.
That "regular" package, with Lewis and Develin teaming up, went for 21 yards on four carries. Had it not been for that set, their final 2.5 yards-per-carry average would have looked even more flimsy.
McDaniels was asked Tuesday if the score made it so that it wasn't in New England's best interest to continue to trot Develin and Lewis out there to hammer away between the tackles.
"There weren't that many [runs]. Ten runs," McDaniels said. "I don't know if that's a large enough sample size to say we were doing
anything well...We had a couple decent runs in the entire game. The rest of them weren't that good regardless of who was on the field and who wasn't on the field."
Whether with regular personnel (a fullback and a tight end) or sub (three receivers), the Patriots are planning on running it better moving forward. They know they'll have to in order to keep themselves out of situations like the spiral they faced in South Florida.
"We certainly need to run the ball better than what we did in either grouping," McDaniels said. "Not being able to convert on third down limits the total number of snaps you're out there...[Then] OK there's another first- and second-down play that you have coming behind those third-down conversions where you have an opportunity to stick more runs in there or whatever you choose to do.
"You never try to go into a game and be that imbalanced and think you're going to do well against a good team."