FOXBORO -- The game was already in hand.
The Patriots were about to get their first win of the season. But it appeared as though they wanted to make a statement with about three minutes left in their game against the Jets at MetLife Stadium.
Damien Harris ran the Patriots down to the five-yard line and gave his offense a first down. From there, they would try to punch it in on the ground. Even if the rest of the stadium knew they were going to try to punch it in on the ground.
That's who the Patriots were billed to be prior to the start of this season: a hard-nosed, plow-you-over rushing attack that can get grimy yards when necessary. With a young quarterback behind center, they could allow Mac Jones to grow into his new role as a passer because they'd be bigger, stronger and tougher than their opponents at the line of scrimmage. With two tight ends, a deep stable of running backs, and the return of 380-pound tackle Trent Brown, they'd be able to run the football at will.
Those were the outside projections, at least.
But through two weeks, that's not exactly how things have played out for the Patriots.
There have been myriad issues in pass protection, with Jones picking himself up off the turf 17 times over the course of two weeks. And, perhaps more surprisingly, the running game has not been as overpowering as expected in some corners.
At the goal line at the end of its win over the Jets, Bill Belichick's offense ran it three times with heavy personnel packages. The result? The Patriots lost three yards and kicked a field goal.
Through two weeks, though it's a small sample, the Patriots are smack in the middle of the league in terms of their average yards per carry (4.2, 16th in the NFL). That's not a bad number. But when taken in conjunction with the fact that the only back with more yards after contact than Harris (135 of his 162 total yards) is Derrick Henry, then the focus shifts to what happens before contact -- and specifically the work of the offensive line.
Why, for instance, did Harris average 3.9 yards per carry against the Jets last week even with a violent 26-yard run mixed in as one of his 16 carries on the day? Why did half the team's running plays (12 of 24) result in a gain of two yards or less in Week 2?
Taking a close look at those runs for minimal yardage, and there's not one answer.
Tight end Hunter Henry was driven back into Harris by a defensive end on one of New England's first carries of the game, limiting the gain to one yard.
Right guard Shaq Mason appeared to get knocked upright on a two-yard gain late in the first quarter.
Left guard Mike Onwenu couldn't get to the linebacker level on a toss play, which was stuffed for a gain of just two.
Right tackle Justin Herron quickly lost leverage on his assignment and forced a James White run back to the middle of the field for what was ultimately a gain of just two.
Left tackle Isaiah Wynn tripped late in the third quarter and couldn't finish the play, resulting in a one-yard gain for JJ Taylor.
Center David Andrews appeared to step on Onwenu's foot on one goal-line attempt late, which helped lead to a loss of yardage.
The Jets also ran stunts up front throughout the course of the game, looping defenders from their lanes to replace a teammate elsewhere on the line of scrimmage. That type of play got Onwenu picked on the first drive and led to a one-yard loss for White. Later in the game, the Patriots lost track of a defensive end who looped all the way to the middle of the line for another tackle for loss. Wynn was knocked off-balance and off his angle to the second level when the Jets knifed left at the snap, leading to a short gain for Harris in the fourth quarter. There were a variety of issues.
And in some ways that may be good news, because the play of what was expected to be an excellent line should eventually revert to the mean.
Wynn, whose fifth-year option for 2022 was picked up in the offseason, has been graded as Pro Football Focus' 46th offensive tackle out of 65 players with at least 40 pass-blocking snaps. Andrews, Mason and Onwenu should continue to grow as an interior unit as the Patriots adapt to the loss of longtime left guard Joe Thuney via free agency. Brown's absence at right tackle has been significant, but it's also not the root of every problem.
"I think we're all right here," Belichick said of his right tackle spot. "Got three players that have played it, and I think they've all done some good things. Trent, I mean not very much in the last two games, but you know, we know Trent can do a good job over there. And Yasir [Durant] and Justin have both done a solid job there.
"We've had some breakdowns at really all spots on the line, all spots offensively. It's just we've lacked some consistency. Even though we have a lot of good plays, and we've moved the ball, and we've put ourselves into positive field position a lot of times this year, we just don't have enough results points-wise that what we feel like we should have. But I think that's really a whole team thing."
The challenge now is to try to fix what's ailed the Patriots offensive line going into a week when it faces a stout New Orleans front.
The Saints are second in the league through two games in yards allowed per carry (2.8), and they're third in rushing yards allowed per game (66.0). This defense, under coordinator Dennis Allen, didn't allow a 100-yard rusher for over three years before that streak was broken late last season. And its best player, Cameron Jordan, is expected to align consistently across from whichever right tackle option the Patriots roll with Sunday.
"They're trying to reset the line of scrimmage, and their linebackers play downhill trying to close out any holes that might be there," White said. "They're well-coordinated. Gotta be physical. Gotta run hard. There's gotta be good communication. I think that's what it's going to be all about. Good communication. Just execute. They're not trying to out-scheme you or anything. It's just guys getting to where they have to be...
"Those guys know what gaps they have, and they do a good job of re-setting the line of scrimmage, making the running back try to bounce, and create negative runs. Now you're second and 11, second and 12, and that's where they want you to be."
Brown has been limited in practice this week with the calf issue that held him out of the Jets game. He appears to have a good shot at getting back on the field Sunday, but if he continues to miss time, it will be on Herron or Durant to hold up in his place. Onwenu, who played right tackle in a pinch last year, is viewed primarily as a guard and more of an emergency option at tackle.
Might there be reinforcements coming from out of town to help at tackle? Unlikely.
Even if Brown or Wynn (who has played 20 of a possible 50 games as a pro) have availability issues, it's unlikely the Patriots are able to import a capable tackle mid-season. There's just a dearth of dependable players at that position around the league. The teams that have good ones don't want to let them go. Even if they're backups. Starters there tend to get hurt, and -- as the Patriots have already learned -- reserve options are more than likely going to get important reps.
Think back to the Patriots in 2017 when they used four different starting offensive tackles -- Cam Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle filled in for injured starters Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer -- en route to a Super Bowl appearance. Unlike that season, when both fill-ins had spent more than one season in the Patriots offense prior to being called upon, Belichick has a greener group of reserves in 2021.
Herron was a rookie last season. Durant was acquired via trade at the tail end of training camp. Yodny Cajuste could eventually see some time, but the 2019 third-round draft choice hasn't seen an offensive snap to this point in his young career.
That means when there's a fill-in opportunity, as there has been for two weeks, there's not much in the way of shared experience to lean on.
"I definitely think it's something you want to strive to do," Andrews said of having the same five players consistently available. "I don't know, in my seven years here, how it's always been perfect. That's just part of it... Obviously injuries and things like that are part of it. I think it does help. We're building to that point... Playing with the guys around you. Building that confidence in them and their confidence in you. I think it all kind of works together, right?"
When healthy, the pieces are there for the Patriots to be the dominant rushing attack they'd like to be. But real cohesion will only come with time.
"A lot of room for improvement right now," Jonnu Smith said Thursday. "We just gotta get this thing tied together. Knowing your teammates, knowing the guy next you, having that chemistry, ultimately that's going to tie this thing together and get this offense where we want to go."
Would it be nice for their running game to become one of the best in football in short order as their rookie quarterback gets his feet wet? Of course. But that's probably not realistic. And it's even less so knowing that one of the league's best run defenses of the last few years heads to Foxboro this weekend.
That's why this one could be closer than you think.
Patriots 23, Saints 20
X factor: Jameis Winston, QB, Saints
If ever there was an X-factor, Winston would be it at the quarterback position. In a blowout win over the Packers, he completed 70 percent of his passes and threw for five touchdowns for a quarterback rating of 130.8. In a blowout loss to the Panthers, he completed 50 percent of his passes and was picked off twice for a rating of 26.9.
The last time the Patriots saw Winston in 2017, he threw for 334 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions as the game came down to the final play. He nearly had his second score of the game to win the game, but it was broken up by Jonathan Jones.
Jones said he and his defensive teammates will see a different player this weekend.
"I think Coach [Sean] Payton has done a good job of helping him correct some of his mistakes," Jones explained. "You see it in his play. He's more meticulous in where he throws the ball and the decisions he's making. When he was in Tampa, he really wasn't making those decisions, going through all his reads. He's definitely doing that a little bit more now ...
"I still say he has his aggression. He loves to push the ball down the field. They haven't handcuffed him and taken that away from him, he's still pushing the ball down the field. I just think some of his mistakes he would've made (when he was) younger he doesn't make anymore."
Winston is still relatively aggressive. He's 12th in the league in intended air yards per attempt (8.6), according to Next Gen Stats. But Next Gen has tracked him as having what they would call a 9.5 "aggressiveness rate." That's a metric that tracks the amount of passing attempts a quarterback makes that are into tight coverage, where there is a defender within one yard or less of the receiver at the time of completion or incompletion.
Winston actually trails Mac Jones (10.1) by percentage points in aggressiveness rate, and ranks 29th in the league. In 2017, Winston ranked seventh (20.4).
Number to know: 2.5
Let's stick with the Winston angle because he's such a fascinating statistical study -- particularly after two weeks that fall on opposite ends of the productivity spectrum.
According to PFF, on throws he makes in less than 2.5 seconds from the moment he takes the snap, he has an adjusted completion percentage of 93.3 and a rating of 131.3. His yards per attempt (6.0) are low in that scenario, but he's been highly effective when getting rid of the football quickly.
On throws that take more than 2.5 seconds to release, he has an adjusted completion percentage of 63.6 and a rating of 73.1. He's thrown two picks in those situations, taken one sack, and his yards per attempt figure is only slightly better than when he throws quickly (6.3).
Belichick said earlier this week he doesn't want Winston scrambling on his defense.
"If you've seen him run with the ball, then I don't know why you'd want him out running with the ball in space," Belichick said. "I don't think that's a good idea at all. He's hard to tackle. He's fast. He runs over people. I don't think you want him running wild in your secondary."
But it might behoove Belichick to find a way to get Winston to hold onto the football longer than he'd like since he's been fairly effective when able to play within the structure of Payton's offense. How can the Patriots accomplish that goal? Quick pressure may do the trick.
If the Patriots can disrupt Winston's timing by blitzing him and moving him off his spot in the pocket that might be their best course of action to get him to hold onto the ball longer than he'd like -- and potentially force him into a mistake. The Patriots might have to play zone coverage in those spots in order to keep defensive back eyes in the backfield and on Winston should he choose to tuck the football and run. But that's something that even the man-to-man-coverage-loving Patriots have done often against mobile passers in the past.
The Panthers were able to use amoeba-style blitzes the Patriots have shown in the past with great success against Winston last week.
It'd come as little surprise if the Patriots welcome Winston to Foxboro with something similar. Copycat league, right?