If we can agree that the offensive formula against the Jets on Sunday was a winning one for the Patriots (Do I see you nodding? Good.), then we’re agreeing that being able to effectively run the ball is a fundamental need for the 2018 Patriots.
To control the game, you need to control the ball and – for this Patriots team – there’s enough evidence to show that they are at their best when running the ball is not a complement but a staple of their attack.
But the pain in the ass of being running-game reliant is that time and score can kick you out of that game plan.
You can’t let the opposing offense get a running start on you. And when you have the ball in deep, you can’t be out trotting Stephen Gostkowski out there and settling for three too often.
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In the past two games, there were issues on both sides of the ball that are sneaky little problems the Patriots need to snuff out.
The first? Their opponent’s offensive productivity in the first quarter.
So far this season, opposing offenses are 17-for-36 on third down in the first quarter (47 percent conversions).
Taking into account the first two opposing possessions in the first 11 games, the Patriots have forced just two three-and-outs. The first came in the season opener. The second came in Week 5.
Those 22 possessions have yielded six touchdowns, four field goals, a missed field goal, nine punts and two turnovers. So opposing offenses are scoring (10 times) almost as often as the Patriots are stopping them (12 times, including the missed field goal by Adam Vinatieri of Indy).
Combine the first-quarter stats of Jets starter Josh McCown and Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota in the first quarter of the past two games and they went 16-for-22 for 209 yards, three TD passes and 17 points.
It’s similar to the two-game stretch where Matt Stafford and Blake Bortles went 19-for-23 for 226, two TD passes and 24 points.
The Patriots have shut down some opposing quarterbacks early as well. The two best guys they’ve seen – Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers – combined to go 13-for-24 for 120 with a pick and six points combined.
But that early-game consistency hasn’t been there and – going against a team like Minnesota – it’s going to be important for New England to keep pace.
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Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins was 7-for-8 for 64 yards and a touchdown last night against the Packers. The Vikings put up a touchdown in the first, something they’ve done in five of their past six games.
All of which wouldn’t be as daunting if the Patriots were again facing a defense like the Jets.
But the Vikings are not them.
- First in the NFL in third-down defense (27.64).
- Second in the league in red-zone defense (allowing TDs on just 43.24 percent of trips inside the 20).
- Second in the league in sacks per pass attempt.
- Fifth in the league in rushing yards per game allowed (93.6).
- Fifth in the league in rushing yards per play (3.69).
The Patriots did damage on the ground Sunday but they did a lot of it between the 20s. When the field compressed and they weren’t able to use play-action as successfully, it became tougher sledding.
New England went 1-for-3 in the red zone (although the Julian Edelman touchdown was from the 21 …) but more than stats, watching the Patriots in short-yardage demonstrates how labor intensive it is for them.
The Patriots were 4-for-11 on Sunday on third-and-4 or less (I also threw in the fourth-and-1 conversion and the 1-for-3 trying to get in from the 1). It’s been an ongoing issue and it leads to punts, field goals or fourth-down dice rolls.
If it’s seemed harder this year, it’s because it has been. Here’s a comparison of where the Patriots rank league-wide in red-zone conversions, goal-to-go conversions and third-down conversions.
Red Zone TDs: 13th
Goal-to-go TDs: 24th
3rd-down conversions: 14th
Red Zone TDs: 10th
Goal-to-go TDs: 5th
3rd-down conversions: 5th
Red Zone TDs: 8th
Goal-to-go TDs: 20th
3rd-down conversions: 4th
None of this precludes the Patriots from ripping through the final five games of the regular season and ending their season the way they have the past two years – in the Super Bowl.
But when considering what tendencies they may have to overcome to get there, start with the things that can put them in chase mode and get them out of ground-and-pound.
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The Vikings are as tough a test as the Patriots can face in that regard.
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