FOXBORO – When a team loses its third-down back, one of the league’s best third down receivers, it’s historically productive tight end and its main slot receiver, it stands to reason that team will struggle to move the chains.
And the Patriots have.
Julian Edelman broke his foot at the end of the first quarter against the Giants. Since then, the Patriots lost Danny Amendola for a game-and-a-half, Rob Gronkowski for a game and counting. And the Patriots have gone 15 for 52 in converting third downs. Before the Edelman injury, the Patriots were better than 50 percent on third down (54 for 107), tops in the NFL. The past 15 quarters of play have dropped them down to 43 percent overall conversions.
Third down has been a problem, Tom Brady agreed. But the other downs haven’t been a picnic either, he pointed out.
“It’s third down, but if you look at statistically, it’s first and second down (failures) that lead to long third downs and nobody’s good at third-and-8-plus in the NFL,” Brady said during his Wednesday press conference. “It’s a passing down, the coverage is too tight, the rush is too good. If you make one or two of those a game it’s usually pretty good for an offense.”
Against the Eagles, the Patriots faced third down 17 times. The average was third-and-8. Eight times the Patriots were in third-and-10 or more.
And the Houston Texans are a much better defense than the Eagles. Before Sunday’s 30-21 loss in Buffalo, the Texans allowed 35 points in their previous four games. They are also best in the league on third down allowing 28.8 percent conversions.
“(The Texans) have forced more teams into (third-and-long) than any other team in the league,” said Brady. “They just have done a great job of negative plays on first and second down, whether that’s in the run game or sacks, the lowest completion percentage (59.3 completions for opposing quarterbacks). They have all the stats and we’re gonna have to do a good job. It’s obviously a big challenge for us. We gotta figure out a way to move the ball enough, take care of it, and score points when we get opportunities. But they certainly make it hard.”
There is no magic wand the Patriots can wave to magically make it get better. And neither Edelman, Gronkowski nor Dion Lewis will be returning soon. The Patriots are in a trial-and-error stage in which they are trying to figure out what they can rely on.
Unfortunately, their rushing attack hasn’t taken the heat off, which is what’s helped lead to the second and third-and-longs. They’ve managed 77, 85, 39 and 103 yards on the ground in their past four games. LeGarrette Blount has carried 57 times for 203 yards (3.56 yards per carry) in those games.
The short passing game – aside from Amendola – has been a labor because defenses are crowding the line and pressing receivers. And the vertical passing game just isn’t something the Patriots are built to execute.
At some point, the Patriots will figure it out. But against Houston, the best third down team in the league? It may get worse before it gets better.