Can the Patriots' woeful ground game improve?

Can the Patriots' woeful ground game improve?

FOXBORO — Because the Patriots are who they are, there’s sometimes a tendency to dismiss any shortcomings.

“So what you’re saying is, if the Patriots had better tight ends and were more efficient on third down and in the red zone AND had a better kicker, they’d be 9-0 in eight games instead of just 8-0? Is that what you’re saying? Because it feels like that’s what you’re saying.”

In a way, I understand the reaction. There’s a market for overstating how bad things are and how concerned everyone should be and I get the pushback on the Chicken Little-ing.

But the Patriots running game woes through the first eight games are legitimate. One only needs to look at the statistical company they are keeping to grasp that — 8-0 or not — New England’s in a bad neighborhood when it comes to running the ball.  The Patriots are averaging 3.23 yards per carry this season. Here are the bottom 11 teams in the league in YPC.

22. Buccaneers 3.76
23. Titans 3.74
24. Falcons 3.70
25. Lions 3.61
26. Bears 3.57
27. Steelers 3.50
28. Chargers 3.48
29. Dolphins 3.33
30. Patriots 3.23
31. Jets 3.22
32. Bengals 3.17

The combined record of those teams is 19-53. The Patriots are the only team in the group with a winning record.

With the trade deadline looming, the Patriots have a decision to make. Bring in reinforcements or hope that they can just do it better with what they have and what they have coming back from injury (Isaiah Wynn from IR; Shaq Mason from an injury last week).

Running backs coach Ivan Fears said Monday the Patriots have enough tools on hand to become better on the ground.

“We can run with what we got,” said Fears. “And everybody’s gotta figure that out. Everyone’s got to do their job and do their role. And they’ve got to do it at a higher level than it’s being done now. That’s across the board. We all got a piece of what’s going on even, unfortunately, losing some key pieces. But we gotta turn it around and that’s what we’ll be trying to get done here.”

Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia agreed when asked if he believed the elements to succeed were there.

“I do,” he said. “We just have to get more out of everybody.”

Why does he believe that despite a half-season of evidence to the contrary?

“Because I’m a huge optimist at heart and I would say the glass is half-full,” he countered. “I would think if we really work hard and embrace the techniques and finish blocks I think things will be fine. We have a lot of work to do and we have to do a lot of things better than we do now.”

There are myriad reasons the Patriots have struggled. I’d list them in order of impact as: Loss of David Andrews, the injury to Isaiah Wynn, not replacing Rob Gronkowski or Dwayne Allen’s blocking prowess, the loss of James Develin and then his backup Jakob Johnson at fullback, the lack of a seam or downfield threat to make play-action worth worrying about, Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon being less effective than past seasons, Sony Michel waiting for holes to open up that just aren’t coming.

With the team tight to the salary cap, the longstanding pipe dream of Trent Williams coming to New England is dead. So the knight in shining armor for the offensive line is Wynn, who is eligible to start practicing this week. Will he make an impact?

“I don’t know when that’s gonna be,” said Scarnecchia. “I like him. He’s a good player. But we gotta get him on the field and he’s gotta stay out there.”

Michel — 140 carries, 464 yards, 6 TDs and a 3.3 average — gets most of the focus for being the weakest link when fans and the media start laying blame. The expert — and I’d call Fears that — said it’s misplaced. But added a caveat.

“I’m happy he’s still alive,” Fears joked about Michel, alluding to the fact he’s carried a big load so far. “I’m happy he’s doing a great job. I’m happy he’s still pretty healthy. He’s playing well in my mind. He’s doing a lot of good things and like everybody, he’s got his moments where he makes mistakes too. He’s got to correct those mistakes. Be a little more consistent in some of the things he’s doing and I think we’ll be more productive overall. I think he tried to run hard this weekend. The good news for us is that Josh is continuing to call on the run game and giving us a chance and that’s keeping it balanced. We want to be more productive, but at least we’re balanced.”

Fears definitely didn’t absolve Michel.

“We gotta stop going backwards,” he said. “And that’s with Sony and some of his decisions. He can’t take a chance and say, ‘I’m gonna bounce this thing. Go East and West all day.’ He’s gotta friggin' get downhill. Nothing there, get downhill.”

The Patriots had one half of really productive running in the first eight games. That was the second half against the Redskins. Their head coach, Jay Gruden, was fired the next day. The calendar flips to November this week. My research shows that December and January follow. The weather is sloppier. Wind whips. Snow falls. Better competition awaits.

Being able to run when you absolutely, positively have to run — like playing with a narrow lead in the closing minutes — is mandatory. Right now, the Patriots can’t do it. They aren’t even close.

“It’s all of us,” said Fears. “It’s everybody. It’s not one thing, that’s the problem. It’s a combination of circumstances. We got injuries, we got different people, we got a bunch of stuff and we need to fix this thing the right way.”

Curran's AFC Power Rankings through Week 8>>>>>

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Report: Pats' punishments for videotaping could include fines, draft picks

Report: Pats' punishments for videotaping could include fines, draft picks

While the investigation into the New England Patriots' illicit videotaping of the Cincinnati Bengals' sideline last weekend is ongoing, The Washington Post's Mark Maske is reporting that the punishment could be aligned in severity with similiar game-day violations committed by other NFL teams in recent years.

That means fines in the range of six figures and/or a reduced round value on a draft pick — or worse still, the loss of one altogether:

"The NFL is likely to penalize the New England Patriots for their admitted violation of league video policy last weekend and is contemplating disciplinary measures in line with those imposed on teams in recent seasons for infractions of game-day rules, according to people familiar with the deliberations.

That could mean a fine in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and potentially the loss or reduction in value of a draft choice, typically a lower-level pick."

CURRAN: Preventable controversy is the last thing Belichick needed>>>

Looking for something similar to what the Patriots were levied for Spygate? Maske points out that punishment was clearly an exception, not a guardrail:

The Patriots have admitted wrongdoing in last Sunday's incident in Cleveland, in which a credentialed Patriots video crew member was caught filming the Bengals' sideline during their game against the Browns. New England has said the camera crew was there to feature a scout as part of their "Do Your Job" video series.

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Report: Julian Edelman, Ted Karras make trip with Patriots, Cowart out for Bengals game

Report: Julian Edelman, Ted Karras make trip with Patriots, Cowart out for Bengals game

Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman and center Ted Karras, who were each listed as questionable with injuries, made the trip to Cincinnati with the team Saturday but backup defensive tackle Byron Cowart was downgraded to out with a concussion, according to ESPN's Mike Reiss.

Edelman, the team's leading receiver, has been battling shoulder and ankle injuries. Karras, the starting center, missed the loss to the Kansas City Chiefs last Sunday with a knee injury. Both were limited in practice this week. 

The Patriots (10-3), coming off back-to-back losses to the Houston Texans and Chiefs, play the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday at 1 p.m.