Ben Watson

If Patriots just did this, the offense would see a big improvement

If Patriots just did this, the offense would see a big improvement

Every week during the NFL season, Tom E. Curran & Phil Perry will go head-to-head and offer their own takes on a Patriots or NFL-related topic. This week: Call me crazy, but if the Patriots would just do THIS offensively, they’d see a big improvement. 

Bang it to the tight ends. So far this season, the Patriots have 26 catches for 349 yards and a touchdown from Benjamin Watson, Matt LaCosse, Ryan Izzo and Eric Tomlinson. The 27 catches have come on 38 total targets.

Tomlinson’s long gone and Izzo hasn’t played since Week 6 against the Giants. LaCosse, meanwhile, has missed five games. The 38-year-old Watson has been targeted twice in the past two games but has pulled in 12 of the 17 passes sent his way in the past six weeks.

Last season, a dinged-up Rob Gronkowski caught 26 passes for 304 yards by himself and that came on 43 targets. It’s astounding that an offense that’s been as reliant on the tight end as the Patriots has only directed 38 passes to the position through 12 games. Even in 2016, when Gronk missed a big chunk of the year, the team was still able to get 55 catches and 701 yards from Martellus Bennett.

I have a feeling the Josh McDaniels has noticed the absence of the tight end in their offense. I’m also sure that part of the reason it hasn’t been anything more than an afterthought is A) they’ve had a revolving door there with LaCosse injured and Watson suspended for the early part of the year; B) they’ve had woeful pass protection especially on the left while Isaiah Wynn was out and needed to keep a tight end in at times and C) they don’t have dynamic players at the spot.

But last week, the Patriots got a much-missed seam pass to Lacosse for 23 yards and a 32-yard catch-and-run from Watson. Could that be a motivator to get the ball out there a little more often? Couldn’t hurt.

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I'm not sure there's anything they can do right now to see a BIG improvement. But there are improvements there to be made, no doubt. I'd focus on the red zone because that's the area of the field where there's the most obvious potential for growth for the Patriots.

There really is no reason for the Patriots not to be at least a little more effective at scoring touchdowns when they get inside the 20. They're currently 24th in the NFL when it comes to red-zone efficiency at 48.89 percent. That's a tick below bad offensive football teams like the Giants (53.12 percent, 22nd), Bears (59.46 percent, 14th), Bills (63.64 percent, 9th) and Dolphins (67.74 percent, 4th).

How do they improve? Go big. Go bigger in the passing game. Get those tight ends you mention, Tom, out there and allow them to use their bodies to post up on defenders in an area of the field where space is tight. Use N'Keal Harry, even if it's only as a specialty player in there, because he knows how to make a back-shoulder catch. Maybe give Phillip Dorsett and Jakobi Meyers a breather when you're in there.

And go big in the running game deep in opponent territory. Multiple tight ends. Maybe an extra offensive lineman at times. Since Isaiah Wynn's return, and since LaCosse has been healthy enough to be a factor as a blocker, the run game has improved. Especially out of two-tight end sets.

In the last two weeks, they've run for 4.2 yards per carry out of 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends). That number was 3.4 yards per carry in Weeks 2-11 without Wynn. They picked up 3.3 yards per carry in games without Wynn this year, whereas they've averaged 4.4 yards per carry the past two weeks -- regardless of personnel package. They should be able to run it closer to the goal line with the offensive line and tight end spots healthier. And if they prove they can do that, that'll open up the play-action passing game down there.

Poof. Just like that, the red-zone offense will be better and the Patriots will see more points on the scoreboard as a result.

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These stats prove just how much the Patriots are missing Rob Gronkowski

These stats prove just how much the Patriots are missing Rob Gronkowski

The New England Patriots' passing attack hasn't been as strong this season as it has been in seasons past. And safe to say, part of that is due to the retirement of Rob Gronkowski.

The long-time Patriots tight end called it quits during the 2019 offseason after a nine-year NFL career. While some have been hopeful that Gronk would return, it seems that he is happy to remain retired at this point in time. And that's bad news for the Patriots.

So far during the 2019 campaign, the Patriots have gotten next to no production from their tight ends. Just how bad has it been? The "Boston Sports Info" Twitter account took a deep dive into the Patriots' tight end numbers since Gronkowski was drafted in 2010, and the Patriots' numbers so far in '19 are their worst over the course of the past 10 years.

The Patriots have gotten just 18 catches for 242 yards and one touchdown out of the tight end position through nine games. All of those numbers are worst (or tied for worst) among the team's totals through nine games since 2010.

Comparatively, other seasons over the last decade have routinely seen the squad record double-digit touchdowns, and there were two occasions (2011 and 2016) that saw the position total over 1,000 yards.

As for the second-worst nine-game start at the tight end position, that came in 2013. At that time, the team had just 29 catches for 397 yards and two touchdowns. However, Gronkowski had only played in three games at that point. And excluding his numbers, the skeleton crew of Matthew Mulligan, Zach Sudfeld, and Michael Hoomanawanui combined for just 10 catches, 113 yards, and a score.

So, it's safe to say that the tight end position has lived and died with Gronk over the course of the past decade. Thus, it's no surprise to see the team struggling to produce without him.

If the Patriots want to get some production out of the tight end position, they're going to need to see one of Ben Watson, Matt LaCosse, or Ryan Izzo step up. So far, none has generated much of a rapport with Tom Brady. But with the team lacking pass-catching options in general, perhaps this group will find a way to rebound after a poor start to the season.

If not, the position group will continue to be one of the team's biggest on the offensive side of the ball.

Tom Curran and Phil Perry dish out their midseason NFL awards>>> 

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Phil Perry's Midseason Report Card: Patriots protection has been better than you think

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USA TODAY Sports photo

Phil Perry's Midseason Report Card: Patriots protection has been better than you think

Go ahead and ask the players in the Patriots locker room as to whether or not they appreciated the timing of this season's bye week. They'll tell you it was just about perfect. 

Seven games left. As many as 11 games total remaining, if you include the postseason. It's midseason. Almost exactly midseason. If you include the preseason, when many of the rostered players played three games, this break comes 12 games in. 

It's just about the perfect time for players and coaches to rest. It's just about the perfect time to make improvements. And it's just about the perfect time for us to take a big-picture look at how each of the team's position groups are performing.