Patriots

Reality check: What Patriots do well offensively right now ain't sexy

Reality check: What Patriots do well offensively right now ain't sexy

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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Here's why a lot of Patriots recent draft picks have Senior Bowl experience

Here's why a lot of Patriots recent draft picks have Senior Bowl experience

Bill Belichick was there. Josh McDaniels was there. The Patriots had a large contingent down in Mobile, Ala. for this week's Senior Bowl practices (the game will air Saturday on NFL Network at 2:30 p.m.), which should come as no surprise.

Just look at how the Patriots have drafted of late. 

In 2019, they selected Jarrett Stidham, Byron Cowart and Jake Bailey -- all of whom participated in the Senior Bowl. They also signed undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers, who played in the game. 

In 2018, they grabbed Isaiah Wynn in the first round, Duke Dawson, Ja'Whaun Bentley and Braxton Berrios after they'd competed in the Senior Bowl.

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Three of their four draft picks from 2017, plus two undrafted rookies, were in the Senior Bowl. 

From 2013-16, they brought aboard 20 Senior Bowl participants as rookies.

"The great thing about the Senior Bowl is that you're seeing some of the best players," Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said last spring. 

"There have actually been some underclassmen who have been incorporated into that mix. So you're seeing them against good competition and it's a different dynamic or different situation that they've been placed in. You're kind of taking them out of their environment that they've been in and kind of giving them something new and seeing how they handle it against good people."

The small-school players -- or the players who are asked to do something they didn't do much as collegians -- are the ones who have an opportunity to really land on radars during Senior Bowl work. For the Patriots, who constantly harp on the benefit of having seen players work against great competition on a regular basis when they hail from an SEC program, seeing some of the best in the country work against one another matters.

"It’s one thing if they do it against a lower-level team," Caserio said back in 2016, when asked about the Senior Bowl. "I mean, look, not all teams are created equal. Not all conferences are created equal. That’s just a fact. We can’t control that. So when you can see them actually play against really good players or good players that are at a comparable level of competition that they’re going to see every Sunday, that has to be a part of [the evaluation], no question."

The next year, the Patriots took two Senior Bowlers from smaller programs: Youngstown State's Derek Rivers and Troy's Antonio Garcia. 

"Where [the Senior Bowl] probably helps a little bit is players on a lower level that maybe haven’t competed against the same level of competition," Caserio said back in 2017. "Obviously, they’re making a big jump. . . Garcia was down there. That’s going to be a big jump in competition because this is what they’re going to be playing against. 

"With all due respect to whatever conference Youngstown State is in, there’s not a lot of NFL players in that conference. I mean, that’s just the way that it is. You’re going to have to see him against NFL competition, which the Senior Bowl is usually a pretty good indication of that because you’re talking about the top seniors in the country. It’s a part of the process. You’re not making a decision based off of that, but maybe a player who doesn’t have as much experience against that level, you’re going to see how he fares, and then you just kind of continue to move forward."

Some small-school prospects who may have caught Belichick's eye this week? 

Dayton tight end Adam Trautman was already considered one of the better tight ends in the draft class and seemed to only help his stock.

Safety Kyle Dugger -- who hails from Division II Lenoir-Rhyne University -- impressed. Ditto for Division III offensive lineman Ben Bartch out of Saint John's, who saw rushers from Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Ole Miss and other high-end programs and reportedly held his own.

Perhaps the most recent success story out of Senior Bowl week for the Patriots wasn't with a small-school prospect, though. It might've been with Shaq Mason, a guard coming out of a run-heavy system at Georgia Tech. The Patriots simply hadn't seen him do much in the way of pass protection for the Yellow Jackets.

But Mason got to the Senior Bowl, took to the coaching he received, and the Patriots took notice. 

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"The thing I’ll say about Shaq," Belichick said after drafting Mason in 2015, "is just watching him at the Senior Bowl, I mean it was only one week, but he made a huge improvement just in those, whatever it was, four or five practices, whatever it was down there. His stance is different. You could see each day progressively how he was taking to the coaching down there and his footwork and his hand placement and his body position. I know it was basic. It wasn’t like it was a big scheme thing at the Senior Bowl, but just doing things on a daily basis better than the day before, looking more comfortable doing them. And it was different than what they did at Georgia Tech."

Big school. Small school. Everyone had something to gain in Mobile this week. And that includes the Patriots. That's why -- with more time off this year than recent years -- they were well represented down there.


 

NFL Rumors: Patriots hiring ex-Rams assistant offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch

NFL Rumors: Patriots hiring ex-Rams assistant offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch

The New England Patriots reportedly have made an addition to their coaching staff.

According to Jim McBride of The Boston Globe, they've hired ex-Los Angeles Rams assistant offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch.

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Fisch's official role with the Patriots offense is to be determined. But now that there's an opening at wide receivers coach with Joe Judge joining the New York Giants, Fisch could be a candidate for the job.

He brings plenty of experience to the table having coached Denver Broncos wide receivers in 2008 and Michigan receivers from 2015-16. Fisch also coached Seattle Seahawks quarterbacks in 2010 and was the Jacksonville Jaguars' offensive coordinator from 2013-14.