FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots have one more game until their bye week, hosting a sputtering Pittsburgh team this Sunday, but they have played half of their regular-season schedule, with their win over Miami marking the eighth game of the year.
So it seems as good a time as any to take a look at how New England is performing statistically.
As quarterback Tom Brady has mentioned time and again in recent weeks when asked about the struggles of the offense, the Patriots are still winning. At 6-2, and with Miami, Buffalo, and the Jets all losing Sunday, they have a two-game lead in the AFC East.
At the midway point last season, New England was 5-3, beating New York in overtime and then drubbing the Rams in London to turn what had been a 3-3 start into what ultimately became a 12-4 season.
The statistics back up what the eye has seen over the first eight games this season: The defense has improved, while the offense, which has been dominant for several years, is decidedly less so at this point.
Even taking out the players Brady has lost that aren’t returning (Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez), he hasn’t been able to consistently practice with the players he does have now: Shane Vereen hasn’t returned to practice after his Week 1 injury, Danny Amendola has played in four of eight games, Rob Gronkowski missed the first six games of the season, and Austin Collie was signed a little less than a month ago.
It is unrealistic, perhaps, to think that an offense, even one led by Brady, wouldn’t have an off season at some point, and that even in this pass-happy era in the NFL, with rules seemingly tailored to promote scoring, there wouldn’t be a dip in production.
To this point, however, the differences are stark: Through the first eight games of 2012, the Patriots were averaging 32.8 points per game, tops in the league; currently they’re at 22.4 points per game, which ranks 17th.
They’ve totaled 158 first downs (46 by rush, 93 by pass, 19 by penalty), more than 70 fewer than 2012, and in correlation, they’re averaging 330 yards per game now to 440.8 a year ago.
Brady is completing just 55.7 percent of his passes (tied for 29th among starting QBs), nearly 10 full points less than last season, and he’s been sacked 23 times vs. 14 in ’12.
The offensive difficulties bear out in two areas of emphasis, red zone and third downs: New England has scored 14 touchdowns in 28 red-zone chances, a 50 percent conversion that is tied for 18th in the NFL; the success rate inside the 20 has improved in recent weeks; after their game with the Saints, the Patriots were just 9 for 20, and in the two weeks since, they were 5 for 6.
Last year, the Patriots got into the end zone on nearly two-thirds of their red-zone chances over the first half of the schedule.
But they’re going sharply in the opposite direction on third down.
Through four games, the Patriots had converted 28 of 66 third-down chances (42.4 percent). Since then? They were a dreadful 9 for 49 combined (18.4 percent) against the Bengals, Saints, Jets (the second meeting), and Dolphins. All told, they rank 29th in the league at 32.2 percent. Last year, New England made good on 48.7 percent of its chances.
The good news is to be found on defense.
New England is allowing 18.0 points per game, a field goal less per game than at this point in 2012, and a mark that’s fifth in the NFL.
There isn’t a sharp decline in the yards per game the Patriots are allowing: 346.3 YPG now vs. 369.8 YPG a year ago, but how opponents are getting those yards has changed.
After several years of having one of the worst passing defenses in the league, the Patriots have surrendered 1,724 passing yards, and quarterbacks are completing just 54.9 percent of their passes; in ’12, those numbers were 2,249 yards and a 65.8 percent completion rate.
However, likely in large part because of the season-ending injury to Vince Wilfork in Week 4 and the knee injury that has sidelined Tommy Kelly for the last three weeks, teams are gaining more on the ground against New England.
The Patriots have given up more than 1,000 rushing yards, with 626 coming over the last four games, an average of 156.5 yards per game; a year ago, the Patriots were stingy against the run, giving up 88.6 YPG in the first eight games.
Two places where the numbers are a little better but bear watching are again in the all-important red zone and third-down categories.
New England has allowed opponents to get into the end zone on 11 of 25 chances (44 percent), which is fifth-best in the league; in ’12, that mark was 11 touchdowns in 20 chances.
On third down, the Patriots rank 22d, stopping opponents 60 percent of the time; that number also has been headed in the wrong direction in recent games. The Jets and Dolphins converted half (19 of 38) of their third-down opportunities, but over the first six games of the season, the Patriots had allowed conversions on only 36.4 percent of chances (32 of 88).
Last year, they were at 42.6 percent (43 of 101) through the first half of the season.