It's a question we've tried to answer all season: What do the Patriots do well offensively?
They haven't been the ground-and-pound machine they were at the end of 2018. They haven't been the spread-it-out-and-chuck-it attack we thought they might morph into.
So what are they good at?
If you listen to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, he'll tell you. It's not glamorous.
"Taking care of the football has historically been a thing we've done well and certainly is a big factor to winning and losing," McDaniels said this week. "The other night [in Houston] the one turnover seemed to really flip the game a little bit there in the first half. But we've done that decent, and we have to continue to do that well. Certainly, that's going to be a huge factor in this game this week against Kansas City.
"Protecting the quarterback, and not going backwards in the running game, and trying to stay out of long-yardage situations to improve your chances on third down . . . There were times the other day when we were pretty good in that area. We tried to keep it in third-and-manageable and actually converted a decent chunk of third downs the other day, too."
They don't turn it over. They don't take sacks.
Tom Brady throwing the football at the feet of his offensive linemen on a screen isn't going to make a season-long highlight reel anytime soon. Neither is James White holding on tight to the football with a defensive back trying to punch it free.
But that is the state of the Patriots offense at the moment. What they do best isn't necessarily procuring good outcomes, it's avoiding bad ones.
Whether or not it's enough to get the Patriots back to where they were at the end of last season remains to be seen. Their defense has been good enough, and scored points frequently enough, that the team is 10-2 and sixth in the league in scoring (26.8 points per game).
The numbers do, however, support McDaniels' assessment of where the offense is effective right now.
The Patriots are plus-18 in the turnover department (best in the league) with just 11 total giveaways (fourth in the league). They have seven interceptions as a team, and they've lost only four fumbles.
Their sack numbers are borderline astounding. No one in the NFL has had more pass attempts than Brady (486), and only Jameis Winston has dropped back to pass more (533) than Brady has (508). Yet, Brady has only been sacked 21 times. That's 24th in the NFL.
Aside from a scheme that encourages Brady to get the ball out of his hands quickly (he's seventh-quickest to get rid of the football, on average, according to Pro Football Focus), Brady also leads the league in throwaways with 30. That number is already the highest Brady's posted going back to 2006, per PFF.
"I’m throwing it away because I don’t want to take a sack," Brady said when asked about his throwaway total last week. "So, I think part of it’s just you feel like you have an opportunity on the play, and if you don’t have that, then I think negative plays actually have a big impact on the game. Turnovers and negative plays I think really keep you from winning games.
"So, if you can drop-back pass, because I’m not really a scrambler...I mean, I have scrambled in the past. I wouldn’t say I never scramble, I’m just not really that much of a scrambler. But, if I’m going to hold it back there, then usually good things aren’t going to happen. So, I try to throw the ball away to save plays and live for the next down."
Avoiding those negative pass plays has helped the Patriots maintain reasonable down-and-distance scenarios over the course of the season -- even when their offense hasn't been as potent as Brady would like.
They're fourth in the league in terms of the number of manageable third-down situations they've faced this year. (For our purposes, we'll define "manageable" as third-and-5 or less.)
The Patriots have run more plays (840) and more third-down plays (176) than any offense in football this season. So when looking at their third-and-manageable situations as a percentage of their overall third-down plays, they're 18th in the NFL when it comes to staying in manageable situations.
That ranking would indicate that keeping themselves in good third-down scenarios is not exactly a strength. But that they've had that many plays to begin with, that they've been able to maintain possession as they have, speaks to a certain level of offensive effectiveness.
It's just not the type of effectiveness that Brady, McDaniels and the Patriots are used to. They've been a top-six offense each of the last four seasons in terms of yards per game. They've been a top-10 team in that category almost every year going back to 2004. The only two years they weren't -- 2014 and 2006 -- they were 11th.
This year, they're 14th.
"I think there's a lot of things that you could look at that you could say we could improve on," McDaniels said. "Certainly, that's the truth. I think it's been the truth most seasons that I've ever coached. But, at the end of the day, there are certain things that we have to do well in order to give our team the best chance to be successful, some of which we've done decent throughout the course of the year and some of which we certainly need to do better."
The things they've done well so far have been the things they need to do to win. And they've won quite a bit. But when they haven't, the fact that they can't do more has been readily apparent.
"I think the bottom line is you have to feel like you have an opportunity to improve in each area at practice each week, and each week's a new challenge," McDaniels said. "We certainly want to try to take care of the ball, we certainly want to try to keep the ball moving forward, we certainly want to improve on third down and in the red zone, two-minute offense, those situational plays that can certainly change the outcome of a drive or a quarter or the half of the game.
"I start with me. I can do a better job of trying to do that and that's what my focus is on, and hopefully, we can make some strides and improve in a lot of areas this week as well."
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