Five weeks into the season, the Patriots are still finding themselves.
On a roster loaded with new starters, a roster that is young at some key positions, there is still time for players to gel and for the on-the-field product to coalesce. But after five weeks there's also been enough time elapsed for the Patriots to have a good idea of where they're strong, the calls they like and the kind of team they have to be as opposed to the team they hoped to be coming into the season.
"That's really where you can waste your time during the season as a coach," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said this week. "You really went into the season with this mindset, like, 'I really want to be good at this. I really want to be good at this.' And you look at yourself, six to eight weeks in, and you're like, 'We're no good at this.'
"At that point, as a coach, it's time to cut bait and just say, 'Listen, we're good at other things. And we tried for three months to really make this go, and for whatever reason -- it could be a number of reasons -- it's not very productive. So it's time to move forward and let the players do the things that they do best.' And, like I said, I think we're getting closer to that."
Bill Belichick acknowledged that the same is true for the Patriots on the defensive side. They're acquiring information about themselves every time they take the field.
"Of course," he said. "It happens in every area. The more information you have, the more actual live game reps you have, you see how other teams are playing you, how they’re attacking you or what they’re trying to do, things show up. And it’s a lot different than preseason.
"You really see what you have, what you don’t have, what you need to work on, what your strengths are. They may or may not be what you thought they were going into the season. That’s what the NFL regular season is for. It exposes your weaknesses, shows you what the matchups are, whether they’re in your favor or they’re not."
So where do the Patriots stand after almost three months of work since they first took the field for training camp? While it may be a tad early to make declarative statements on what they can and can't do, it's not too early to spot some trends.
Here's what has looked good (roll with it!) and not so good (time for a change?) to this point in the season.
Roll with it!
Downhill runs: The Patriots have not been an effective running team thus far this season, by almost every measure. They've averaged 3.7 yards per carry, which places them 27th in the league. They're 28th in expected points added per rush and 24th in success rate.
But this team can't completely abandon the run, no matter how abysmal the numbers have been. They're built to run the ball effectively with the investments they've made on the offensive line and at tight end. They have a young quarterback for whom a strong running game would be beneficial. They have young backs they've trusted to contribute, though that trust has waned with every passing fumble.
And it hasn't all been bad in the running game. When they've tried to hit runs going downhill, the numbers have actually been much better. According to Sharp Football Stats, when running behind their guards, the Patriots are averaging over 5.0 yards per carry. Runs to the outside, outside the tackles or wider, have averaged closer to 2.0 yards per carry. Brandon Bolden's 24-yard crack-toss run in Houston helped put the Patriots in position to kick a game-winning field goal in Week 5 but has been an outlier when it comes to the team's success rate on toss plays.
That massive discrepancy makes some sense.
Guards Shaq Mason (dealing with an abdomen injury) and Mike Onwenu (removed from COVID reserve Thursday) have been the team's two most consistent linemen this year and their strength is their strength. With Trent Brown out, running toward right tackle has been a fool's errand, and runs behind Isaiah Wynn have been a slog. Blocking breakdowns at tight end and receiver have also torpedoed McDaniels' attempts to run wide.
(Gadgety wide runs have been very good, however. Kendrick Bourne, Jonnu Smith and Nelson Agholor have seven combined attempts for 43 yards this season. Maybe the Patriots should roll with those, too.)
But getting north and south as quickly as possible seems to have paid dividends for the Patriots. It makes use of Damien Harris' power and decisiveness to the hole. It takes advantage of impactful run blockers like Mason and Onwenu.
The Patriots have been 83 percent successful on third or fourth down and two yards or less to go. That's far above the 64 percent success rate league-wide in those situations. And 67 percent of those plays for the Patriots have come from 11 personnel, indicating that even with sub personnel, the Patriots have the ability to run in short-yardage situations -- so long as they're getting downhill.
Time for a change?
Downfield passing: The passing game has been the more efficient way for the Patriots to move the football consistently this season, but it hasn't exactly been efficient relative to the rest of the NFL.
The Patriots are 10th in dropbacks this season but just 20th in passing yardage. They're 25th in yards per attempt, 22nd in explosive pass rate, and, most importantly, 26th in points per game. The points number is explained thanks in large part to the team's ugly red-zone numbers. They're 31st in success rate inside the 20.
But the Patriots may have more to show on the scoreboard if they were able to be more explosive. Fewer plays per drive ... fewer opportunities to run into a drive-killing penalty or negative play ... more points. Potentially.
When Patriots wideout Jakobi Meyers was asked this week if the offense needed to be more explosive, he referenced an old quarterbacking axiom he remembered from his days of playing behind center: Won't go broke taking a profit.
McDaniels echoed a similar sentiment this week when he said, "Very, very rarely are we going to say we lost the game because we threw an incomplete pass in the second quarter. And so (it's) just doing a good job of being disciplined in making good decisions."
But even though the Patriots are OK throwing short, taking that profit as opposed to forcing something deep, the Patriots are 29th in EPA per play and 26th in EPA per pass, according to Ben Baldwin of The Athletic. They're ninth in the league in third-down conversion percentage yet remain one of the least productive offenses in football.
Getting more explosive, if they can, would help.
Out of 33 qualifying quarterbacks, when throwing the ball 20 yards down the field or farther, Mac Jones is last in yards (97), yards per attempt (5.1), adjusted completion percentage (21.1) and quarterback rating (8.8). He's second-to-last in Pro Football Focus' turnover-worthy play percentage (16.7), completion percentage (21.1).
Jones has taken just over 3.0 seconds to throw on his deep attempts, indicating that he may be feeling pressure -- or simply feeling sped up because of the amount of pressure he's seen through five weeks -- on those deep attempts. Better protection may lead to better results. Therefore perhaps Brown's return would allow for more in the way of deep shots. But through five weeks there has been very little evidence that this particular group is going to consistently threaten opposing defenses deep down the field. Nelson Agholor, one of the most effective deep-ball receivers in the league in 2020 (18.7 yards per catch) has 16 catches for 197 yards (12.3 yards per catch) this season.
They can't abandon it altogether. They're already near the bottom of the league in terms of how often they chuck it deep. At the moment, deep throws make up 10.0 percent of Jones' overall attempts, putting him 26th in the NFL, just behind Patrick Mahomes (10.3) and Daniel Jones (10.2) and just ahead of Sam Darnold (9.8) and Justin Herbert (9.7), per PFF. But at some point, if it doesn't improve, might they have to say, "We're no good at this," and dial the attempts back even more?
Roll with it!
No huddle: If Jones seems to be more comfortable operating from the shotgun, in spread situations, with the ability to adjust at the line of scrimmage as a defense hustles to get set ... he is. At least the numbers would suggest as much.
Only about seven percent of Patriots plays have been run out of the no-huddle this year, per Sharp Football. But they've been successful on 59 percent of those snaps, picking up a quarterback rating of 91.4 -- a slight bump from the 86.4 rating Jones has in all situations.
Plus, in those no-huddle situations, Jones often gets to operate with the personnel grouping that has been most efficient for the Patriots: 11 personnel.
Those three-receiver sets have been used 55 percent of the time by the Patriots offense. They've produced a 49 percent success rate, 7.0 yards per pass attempt, a passer rating of 88.1 -- all improvements over the team's 12-personnel production.
Time for a change?
12-personnel passing: The Patriots offense was supposed to be transformed by a two tight end attack featuring big-ticket free-agent acquisitions Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. But thus far it hasn't worked that way, at least when they're on the field together. Particularly through the air.
Through five weeks, the Patriots have run roughly a quarter of their plays (24 percent) with two tight ends on the field. They have a 45 percent success rate, making it their least-effective regularly-used personnel package. Through the air, they're averaging just 6.3 yards per attempt out of "12," putting them 22nd in the NFL in that category. They're 23rd in quarterback rating out of "12" (77.9).
They've been better on the ground, running the football with Smith and Henry on the field together, averaging 4.6 yards per carry with that grouping. But their 44 percent success rate running the ball with two tight ends on the field isn't going to spook defenses into rushing base personnel onto the field because they're afraid of getting gashed by the run.
The Patriots have actually been a slightly more effective offense in some respects with a fullback on the field (6.5 yards per pass attempt, 107.3 quarterback rating, 62 percent rushing success rate), even though fullback Jakob Johnson doesn't possess the dynamic athleticism that Henry and Smith do.
Maybe that's why the Patriots aligned their tight ends as fullbacks for five snaps last weekend against the Texans. If the Patriots can start to run the ball more effectively in 12 personnel using a tight end as a lead blocker out of the backfield, maybe that would coax defenses into answering them with base defenders. That could, in turn, give the Patriots an advantage in the passing game if they can get teams to match their tight ends with linebackers.
Something to watch moving forward.
Roll with it!
Play-action passing: This would make some sense based on the downhill running data referenced above. If the Patriots can match those downhill run looks with a passing game that can take advantage of over-aggressive linebackers at the second level, their offense will be better off for it.
Jones isn't one of the league's most dangerous play-action passers by any means. He's 23rd in yards per attempt out of play-action (7.8), per PFF. But that's 1.6 yards per attempt more than when Jones isn't throwing with play action. His 77.3 completion percentage when using play-action is 8.1 percentage points higher than when he doesn't use play-action.
Using play-action has meant living dangerously for Jones, to a certain extent. He's thrown two picks using play action and his PFF turnover-worthy play percentage (8.9) is the highest in all of football.
But for an offense that needs to find ways to become more efficient through the air, the play-action pass is one worth sticking with. Against the Texans, he went 9-for-11, 127 yards and a pick out of play-action.
Time for a change?
Screen game: The Patriots are 30th in the league in terms of yards per attempt (3.8) and quarterback rating (82.5) when using screens. It's been tough sledding, to say the least.
Predictably, it's gotten worse with James White out. In games with White out (hip), the Patriots are averaging just 3.4 yards per screen attempt with a rating of 80.7. Unless JJ Taylor or Rhamondre Stevenson can give that area of the Patriots passing game a little juice -- unless a more diversified passing attack eventually opens up opportunities for a screen to catch a defense by surprise -- this might be one concept that the Patriots need to deploy less often.
Roll with it!
Blitz: Are the numbers here skewed based on the fact that the Patriots have already faced two rookie quarterbacks? Maybe. But sending additional rushers has largely benefitted the Patriots through the first five weeks of the season.
To this point, the Patriots have allowed 25 of 34 attempts to be completed when blitzing for 251 yards, according to PFF. That's a nice completion percentage (74 percent) and yards-per-attempt figure (7.4), but the Patriots have also picked off two passes, allowed just one touchdown, created 11 pressures and three sacks. Add it all up, that's a quarterback rating of just 79.4.
Against a team like the Cowboys and Dak Prescott, blitzing might not be the go-to move. He has a 3-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio when blitzed, and he averages 8.1 yards per attempt when facing extra heat. Blitzing him might be like blitzing Tom Brady. Bad idea.
But the Patriots are thin at the cornerback spot, and in order to help his secondary, it wouldn't come as much surprise if over the course of the season Belichick dialed up more pressure in order to help his defensive backs not have to cover for extended periods of time.
Time for a change?
Slant awareness: Are there moments when the blitz may make the Patriots susceptible to being hit for key gains on slants? Sure.
The Texans got the Patriots on multiple occasions when blitzing in Week 5. On a Cover 0 snap, David Johnson beat Devin McCourty in off coverage -- defensive backs play off in that scenario in order not to open themselves up to giving up a long touchdown with no safety help -- on a slant for a first down. JC Jackson got beat by a slant on a fourth-and-one play when he gave up inside leverage for an easy pitch and catch over on-coming linebackers. (Later in the game, in a similar short-yardage scenario, he pressed Brandin Cooks at the line and helped force an incompletion.)
Against the Dolphins in Week 2, Jalen Mills gave up a fourth-quarter slant for a long gain when, like Jackson on fourth down in Houston, he played to his help where the Patriots had a middle of the field safety. But DeVante Parker caught the pass before the safety's arrival and picked up a chunk gain.
Bailing on the blitz because it might open up the Patriots to giving up yardage on quick-hitters isn't reason enough to pull the plug.
"Honestly I would say part of it just has to do with awareness, right? Awareness of the play," Jerod Mayo said this week when asked about slants. "So a lot of those have happened on short-yardage plays, like third-and-1. And really it’s a run, it’s not just a normal slant pass. I don’t want you guys to think they are just sitting back there in dropback pass and throwing the slant. It’s a called run play and what we call a 'look' pass. They just sling it out there. We’ve, through self-scouting and honestly just being at the game, we know that play’s coming. We just have to play it better."
Roll with it!
Man-to-man: The Patriots remain near the top of the league when it comes to their usage of man coverage, particularly Cover 1, with a single-high safety.
Again, the fact that it has worked to this point in the season could be in part because of the competition they've faced. The Patriots are fourth in the league in quarterback rating allowed (81.6), eighth in sacks (13) and they're tied for sixth in interceptions (5).
But if ever there was a game when it should have been difficult to live in man-to-man, it would've been against Brady and the Buccaneers. Yet the Patriots matched up and held one of the best passing offenses in football to just 19 points.
This defense is set up to be versatile with the way in which they deploy numbers in their pass-rush and coverage schemes. There will be times when the Patriots rush just three and drop eight. There will be times when they rush seven and play with no safety deep. But at their core they are a man-to-man defense under Belichick.
That could change if they feel like they're losing too many matchups on the outside. Their No. 2 corner spot looked like a liability against the Texans with Mills out. If Mills continues to miss time -- or if Jackson or Jonathan Jones deal with injury moving forward -- that might force the Patriots to lean on something other than their bread-and-butter man-to-man calls. But they aren't there just yet.
Time for a change?
Four-minute approach: On paper, the Patriots have one of the best run defenses in football. They're allowing 3.8 yards per carry (sixth in the NFL). They've given up just three rushing touchdowns (tied for fifth).
But they're 21st in rush EPA allowed per play, according to Ben Baldwin of The Athletic, and they're 23rd in success rate allowed on the ground. Late in games, in particular, offenses have been able to get what they need. Miami salted away the game with its rushing attack in Week 1. Same went for the Saints in Week 3.
The Patriots defense was much improved against the Texans. They had the seventh-best performance of any run defense in football last weekend, based on EPA. They allowed Houston just a 20.8 success rate, which was second-lowest in football in Week 5.
They're on the right track there.
But as safety Adrian Phillips said before going to Houston, the Patriots defense needs to do a better job of consistently showing it can shut down the opposition late in games.
"There have been situations in the game, situational football towards the end of the game, where we have to just -- point blank -- be better," Phillips said. "All defenses talk about you want the stress on you. You want to be able to put the offense back on the field and have a chance to win. Three out of those four games we weren't able to do that."