Ivan Fears

Can the Patriots' woeful ground game improve?

Can the Patriots' woeful ground game improve?

FOXBORO — Because the Patriots are who they are, there’s sometimes a tendency to dismiss any shortcomings.

“So what you’re saying is, if the Patriots had better tight ends and were more efficient on third down and in the red zone AND had a better kicker, they’d be 9-0 in eight games instead of just 8-0? Is that what you’re saying? Because it feels like that’s what you’re saying.”

In a way, I understand the reaction. There’s a market for overstating how bad things are and how concerned everyone should be and I get the pushback on the Chicken Little-ing.

But the Patriots running game woes through the first eight games are legitimate. One only needs to look at the statistical company they are keeping to grasp that — 8-0 or not — New England’s in a bad neighborhood when it comes to running the ball.  The Patriots are averaging 3.23 yards per carry this season. Here are the bottom 11 teams in the league in YPC.

22. Buccaneers 3.76
23. Titans 3.74
24. Falcons 3.70
25. Lions 3.61
26. Bears 3.57
27. Steelers 3.50
28. Chargers 3.48
29. Dolphins 3.33
30. Patriots 3.23
31. Jets 3.22
32. Bengals 3.17

The combined record of those teams is 19-53. The Patriots are the only team in the group with a winning record.

With the trade deadline looming, the Patriots have a decision to make. Bring in reinforcements or hope that they can just do it better with what they have and what they have coming back from injury (Isaiah Wynn from IR; Shaq Mason from an injury last week).

Running backs coach Ivan Fears said Monday the Patriots have enough tools on hand to become better on the ground.

“We can run with what we got,” said Fears. “And everybody’s gotta figure that out. Everyone’s got to do their job and do their role. And they’ve got to do it at a higher level than it’s being done now. That’s across the board. We all got a piece of what’s going on even, unfortunately, losing some key pieces. But we gotta turn it around and that’s what we’ll be trying to get done here.”

Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia agreed when asked if he believed the elements to succeed were there.

“I do,” he said. “We just have to get more out of everybody.”

Why does he believe that despite a half-season of evidence to the contrary?

“Because I’m a huge optimist at heart and I would say the glass is half-full,” he countered. “I would think if we really work hard and embrace the techniques and finish blocks I think things will be fine. We have a lot of work to do and we have to do a lot of things better than we do now.”

There are myriad reasons the Patriots have struggled. I’d list them in order of impact as: Loss of David Andrews, the injury to Isaiah Wynn, not replacing Rob Gronkowski or Dwayne Allen’s blocking prowess, the loss of James Develin and then his backup Jakob Johnson at fullback, the lack of a seam or downfield threat to make play-action worth worrying about, Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon being less effective than past seasons, Sony Michel waiting for holes to open up that just aren’t coming.

With the team tight to the salary cap, the longstanding pipe dream of Trent Williams coming to New England is dead. So the knight in shining armor for the offensive line is Wynn, who is eligible to start practicing this week. Will he make an impact?

“I don’t know when that’s gonna be,” said Scarnecchia. “I like him. He’s a good player. But we gotta get him on the field and he’s gotta stay out there.”

Michel — 140 carries, 464 yards, 6 TDs and a 3.3 average — gets most of the focus for being the weakest link when fans and the media start laying blame. The expert — and I’d call Fears that — said it’s misplaced. But added a caveat.

“I’m happy he’s still alive,” Fears joked about Michel, alluding to the fact he’s carried a big load so far. “I’m happy he’s doing a great job. I’m happy he’s still pretty healthy. He’s playing well in my mind. He’s doing a lot of good things and like everybody, he’s got his moments where he makes mistakes too. He’s got to correct those mistakes. Be a little more consistent in some of the things he’s doing and I think we’ll be more productive overall. I think he tried to run hard this weekend. The good news for us is that Josh is continuing to call on the run game and giving us a chance and that’s keeping it balanced. We want to be more productive, but at least we’re balanced.”

Fears definitely didn’t absolve Michel.

“We gotta stop going backwards,” he said. “And that’s with Sony and some of his decisions. He can’t take a chance and say, ‘I’m gonna bounce this thing. Go East and West all day.’ He’s gotta friggin' get downhill. Nothing there, get downhill.”

The Patriots had one half of really productive running in the first eight games. That was the second half against the Redskins. Their head coach, Jay Gruden, was fired the next day. The calendar flips to November this week. My research shows that December and January follow. The weather is sloppier. Wind whips. Snow falls. Better competition awaits.

Being able to run when you absolutely, positively have to run — like playing with a narrow lead in the closing minutes — is mandatory. Right now, the Patriots can’t do it. They aren’t even close.

“It’s all of us,” said Fears. “It’s everybody. It’s not one thing, that’s the problem. It’s a combination of circumstances. We got injuries, we got different people, we got a bunch of stuff and we need to fix this thing the right way.”

Curran's AFC Power Rankings through Week 8>>>>>

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Tom Brady praises teammates, Edelman is 'like my little brother, in a good way'

Tom Brady praises teammates, Edelman is 'like my little brother, in a good way'

Tom Brady has a big week ahead of him. 

Brady spoke to the media for the last time on Saturday before the team departs for Atlanta tomorrow after their send-off rally at Gillette Stadium. 

As he prepares for his ninth Super Bowl, Brady praised his teammates and reflected on his relationship with them. 

When asked about his offensive line, Brady didn't hold back the plaudits, but also emphasized what we all knew: that their biggest challenge is ahead of them. They'll need to have a stellar game against an absurdly talented Rams defensive line

"We haven't had that many sacks this year, I think they've done such a great job protecting...The run game, I think, speaks for itself, and that was just an incredible effort last week. And we're going to need it again, because, obviously, this group is exceptional at that position... We're all going to be challenged, and we need those guys to play a great game."

Brady gave the line a shout out earlier this week on Instagram with a post that featured his clean jersey. The line has certainly played well in the playoffs, allowing no sacks while facing premier pass rushers Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Justin Houston, and Dee Ford. All this while paving the way for Sony Michel & Co. to rush for more than 300 yards and eight touchdowns in two games. 


Brady was asked about the relationship he has with receiver Julian Edelman, his longtime teammate and friend. 

"I trust him so much. We put in so many hours together in the meeting room, in the film room...He's always kind of been like my little brother, in a good way. He knows how much I love him. What he's done with his career has been incredible."

Listening to any one of Edelman's "Mic'd Up" segments, it's obvious that the two have a very close relationship, and are driven to succeed by each other.

Brady and Edelman have been close since they became teammates in 2011, but that's more than a decade after Brady arrived in New England. Brady made light of just how long he's been there and how well he knows the coaches. 

"I was joking with Dante [Scarnecchia] and Ivan [Fears], I've been with them longer than I've been with my parents." 

Brady has certainly been here a long time, but if he has anything to say about it, he won't be gone for a while yet. 

The next time he takes the podium? It'll be in Atlanta, prepping for the Rams and a chance at a sixth championship. 

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Patriots midseason awards: Part Three


Patriots midseason awards: Part Three

The season is halfway over and the Patriots are on their bye week, so what better time for midseason superlatives? In the third of a three-part series, Phil Perry and Tom E. Curran and Mike Giardi tell you what's worked so far . . . and what hasn't.

PART ONE Best and worst on-field happenings | PART TWO: Midseason awards


PHIL PERRY: Rob Gronkowski's health. Yes, the workload has been hefty. But Gronkowski looks explosive, and he's made it through a half-season as Brady's best weapon in the passing game and one of the team's most impactful blockers. If he and Brady are healthy, they still have the ability to keep pace with most NFL offenses. 


TOM E. CURRAN: An effective running game. Four backs of varying skills who can keep the heat off Brady’s arm, make play-action useful and pick up the hard yards? If they keep improving, they’ll be the key to this offense.


MIKE GIARDI: There’s a bunch, but I’ll just drop these two names: Brady and Belichick. As long as Brady is operating at this level, the Pats have a chance (boy, I bet you’ve never heard that before). I still think, even with a somewhat uneven performance in the first half, that the offense will score every time it has the ball. That’s all about Brady. I’ve seen it too often not to believe. As for Belichick, he routinely coaches circles around the rest of these clowns in the NFL. His teams are generally smarter and almost always better prepared. This run of success in the salary cap league is unprecedented. It starts with the coach and he’s closely followed by the quarterback.


PHIL PERRY:  Lack of pass-rush options. It won't matter all that much who is in the secondary or how well they're playing if the Patriots pass rush isn't a threat to speed up opposing passers. They're thin on the edge, and they'll need the likes of Deatrich Wise, Cassius Marsh, Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy to provide them something in the way of disruption. 


TOM E. CURRAN: Scattershot Steve. My confidence in Stephen Gostkowski is diminishing and this Patriots team won’t be blowing people out. He needs to be a consistent asset rather than a dice roll.


MIKE GIARDI: The Pats have lost two of the most irreplaceable players on their roster, Dont’a Hightower and Julian Edelman. They are dangerously thin on the defensive line, at wide receiver, at tight end, at linebacker and now at quarterback. I realize that every team can’t have backups who are NFL-caliber starters at every position. That’s not how the league works. But it’s been a long time since you can run down a list of depth issues at so many spots. I don’t care how good the coaching is, if a Rob Gronkowski goes down, this team is in deep doodoo. Ditto for Trey Flowers. Did you ever think an injury to Kyle Van Noy could derail the season? Yeah, me neither. Wait, actually I still don’t, but you get the point. Health is critical down the stretch.


PHIL PERRY: Brandin Cooks The Patriots had to hit if they were willing to give up a first-rounder, and they have. He isn't a middle-of-the-field dynamo, but on the outside Cooks is electric. He's averaging 17.1 yards per catch, and he's on pace for over 1,200 yards receiving and six touchdowns. 


TOM E. CURRAN: Johnson Bademosi. The Patriots tracked the former Stanford corner since 2012 and spent a sixth-round pick in the offseason to get him away from the Lions. He’s filled in stunningly well for the injured Stephon Gilmore.


MIKE GIARDI: Johnson Bademosi. He’s been a saving grace for a secondary and a defense that had been struggling mightily during the first month or so . Normally a special-teams player and special-teamer alone, Bademosi has expanded his role to become the starting corner opposite Malcolm Butler, filling in ably for Stephon Gilmore. Okay, he’s actually been far more consistent than Gilmore was before his injury. No, Bademosi isn’t better than Gilmore but he’s performed better in this short sample and at the very least has given Matt Patricia another viable option at corner. All for a 2018 sixth-round draft pick. I’d say it’s already been worth it.


PHIL PERRY: Dwayne Allen. The Patriots swapped a fourth-round pick for a sixth-rounder in order to acquire Allen, so it's not as though they sold the farm to snag him from the Colts. But his role could have been a crucial one in the Patriots offense, and now it's the opposite. Allen hasn't seen a target since Week 4 and he doesn't have a catch on the season. Undrafted rookie Jacob Hollister was playing over Allen in the two-minute drill in the first half last Sunday. 

TOM E. CURRAN: Lack of left-tackle attention. The Patriots are foot-dragging on finding Nate Solder’s understudy in a way they didn’t with Matt Light. And they are nickel-and-diming the search in a way they didn’t with Light. Solder’s not playing great and the Patriots have poor tackle depth. It concerns.


MIKE GIARDI: The list is a hell of a lot longer than normal in the Belichick-era. Stephen Gilmore is an easy target. I’m not going there. The last game he played was a good one. Dwayne Allen? Yeah, he’s been average at best. But I wasn’t expecting him to be an impact player so I rule him out. Trading Jimmy Garoppolo? That wasn’t my favorite but with Brady playing the way he’s playing, fine. That takes me all the back to the trade for Kony Ealy. I hear all this talk about just moving down eight spots in the draft and it was a low-risk, high-reward move. Really? They made the trade expecting Ealy to play an important role along the defensive line. Their failure to see it wasn’t a good fit, or to motivate the player, led to Ealy getting chopped before cutdown day. That’s how bad it was. Do you think they could use a player of his talent level right now? That was a rhetorical question. The answer is yes. And as the Pats struggle to get to the QB, and have to play Cassius Marsh or use Kyle Van Noy on the edge or even turn to the Flowers not named Trey, you can’t help but think “man, it sure would be nice to have Kony Ealy on the field right about now" . . . 


PHIL PERRY: Joe Judge. The Patriots' kick-coverage units have been perhaps the most consistent of any unit on the team through eight weeks. And that's with Matthew Slater missing the first quarter of the year. Credit goes to Judge and his assistant Bubba Ventrone for getting these groups, comprised of many first-year Patriots, on the same page so quickly. 


TOM E. CURRAN: Ivan Fears. The Patriots’ running back coach has James White, Dion Lewis, Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead under his supervision and the way those players have improved over time is due notice.


MIKE GIARDI: Ivan Fears. Aside from quarterback, what position on the team has performed to or above expected levels? To me, it’s one spot and one spot alone: running back. Of the quartet of Dion Lewis, James White, Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee, only the latter hasn’t quite taken off but it’s not like Gillislee has sucked. Fears has managed to -- generally -- keep everyone happy in that group. He wins the award and I’m sure he’s already carving out space on his mantel.