The first half of the Patriots’ season is complete, and, well, it wasn’t pretty.
The Patriots are 3-5, the first time they have been under .500 at the midway point since 2000. A feel-good 2-1 start quickly dissipated because of a COVID-19 disruption and subsequent four-game losing streak. And Cam Newton’s inconsistent play has left many pining for the days of Tom Brady.
But it hasn’t been all bad for the Patriots, either. This season probably won’t end with a playoff berth, but there have been a few positive developments. Let’s review the good, bad, and mixed from the first half:
▪ RB Damien Harris: Missed the first three games with an ankle injury, and in just five games, Harris leads the Patriots with 350 rushing yards, 70 yards per game, and an impressive 5.6 yards per carry. Harris runs hard and should keep the job even when Sony Michel returns.
▪ WR Jakobi Meyers: Has come on strong the last three weeks in N’Keal Harry’s absence, catching 22 passes for 287 yards in his last three games. Meyers, undrafted in 2019, produces more than Harry, a first-round pick in 2019.
▪ G/T Mike Onwenu and RT Jermaine Eluemunor: Onwenu, a sixth-round pick out of Michigan (where have we heard that before?), has been the Patriots’ best rookie. He has started six games, at three positions — right tackle, right guard, and left guard. Eluemunor was filling in well for Marcus Cannon at right tackle before going down in Week 6 with an ankle injury.
▪ K Nick Folk and P Jake Bailey: Folk has hit his last 14 field goals, including a 51-yarder at the gun to beat the Jets. And Bailey is second in the NFL with a 45.7 net punting average. The Patriots have allowed just 17 punt return yards, fewest in the NFL.
▪ RB Rex Burkhead: Has played in all eight games, and has been a solid run-catch threat, compiling 388 total yards and four touchdowns. Burkhead is the only non-quarterback on the Patriots with more than one TD this year.
▪ Penalties: The Patriots’ 31 total flags are the fewest in the NFL, and 285 penalty yards are third-fewest. It took them until the second quarter of Week 4 to commit an offensive penalty. The Patriots are plus-14 in penalties, second-best in the NFL.
▪ The run game, especially short-yardage rushing: The Patriots are fourth in rushing yards per game (159.6), and already have five games with at least 150 rushing yards, compared with just one last season. And Newton’s presence has helped the Patriots in short-yardage situations. With less than 4 yards to go on third and fourth downs, the Patriots have converted 80 percent (20 of 25) of their rushes. Last year, they only converted 65 percent (22 of 34).
▪ QB Cam Newton: He has thrown only two touchdown passes against seven interceptions for a 77.1 passer rating, ranked 29th among QBs. He doesn’t see the field well, his accuracy is scattershot, and he came up short in comeback bids against Seattle and Buffalo. Newton is 31st in passer rating against the blitz (62.3, with 1 TD, 5 INTs, and 8 sacks).
He hasn’t been all bad, especially given how tough of a situation he’s in with a new team and the COVID-19 disruption. He has rushed for 314 yards and scored eight touchdowns, has completed 68.1 percent of passes, and seems to be improving in recent weeks.
▪ Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels: Morphing the scheme from Brady to Newton certainly is not easy. And McDaniels gets a bit of a pass because he hasn’t had much talent to work with, especially with Julian Edelman injured. The Patriots’ offense is a respectable 19th in yards per play (5.6), 16th on third down (42.9 percent), and has scored 35 second-half points in the last two weeks.
That said, the Patriots are 30th in offensive points scored (19.0 per game). And they have been abominable to start games, with just 7 offensive points in the first quarter all season. The Patriots aren’t good enough to have to play from behind.
▪ The secondary: The Patriots' 10 interceptions are fourth-most in the NFL. And they have yet to allow a 300-yard passer. But they also rank 32nd in average yards per pass (8.0) and 32nd in yards after catch per reception (6.3), though the team’s horrible pass rush certainly plays a factor.
Stephon Gilmore has been good but not great, with a team-high four penalties and a allowing touchdown, which he didn’t allow all of last year. J.C. Jackson leads the NFL with five interceptions, but was beaten for two touchdowns last week against the Jets. Adrian Phillips has been a decent fill-in at the hybrid safety/linebacker role, but the Patriots miss Patrick Chung.
▪ LBs Chase Winovich and Ja’Whaun Bentley: Winovich showed flashes early in the season and leads the team with 2.5 sacks, but his playing time has plummeted in recent weeks and the coaches don’t see him as a three-down player. Bentley has done an admirable job at middle linebacker, but he doesn’t have great speed, and the Patriots miss Dont’a Hightower.
▪ Big plays on offense: The Patriots are tied for last in the NFL with 18 completions of 20-plus yards. They have scored the fewest points in the league from outside the red zone (29, with just one touchdown). They have not had a scoring drive of fewer than four plays all season.
And if the Patriots get into third and long, forget about it. On third and 7 or more, the Patriots rank 31st, converting just 5 of 32 (15.6 percent).
▪ Defense after halftime: The Patriots have allowed a league-high four touchdowns and 31 points on their opponent’s first possession after halftime.
▪ Turnovers: The Patriots have been uncharacteristically sloppy with 15 turnovers, tied for fourth-most in the NFL. They have lost three fumbles inside the red zone.
▪ QB Jarrett Stidham: The hype never met reality with Stidham, who not only didn’t beat out Newton for the starting job, but started the season as the No. 3 quarterback. This year he has three interceptions in 23 pass attempts, and looks like no more than a backup.
▪ Receiver depth: The last two weeks, without Edelman and Harry, the Patriots have played with four wide receivers, all of whom were undrafted players. The depth is so thin that they resorted to trading for one of the Dolphins’ scraps in Isaiah Ford. Meyers at least has shown some promise.
▪ Tight ends. For the second year in a row, no team is getting less production from the tight ends. Rookie Dalton Keene at least is on the stat sheet with one catch for 8 yards, but now he is on IR. Fellow third-round pick Devin Asiasi has no targets in five games and also is on IR. Ryan Izzo leads the way with nine catches for 114 yards. The Patriots basically use tight ends as blockers and decoys.
▪ The other rookies: Onwenu and sixth-round tackle Justin Herron are performing capably. Everyone else is a dud so far. Top pick Kyle Dugger has just 17 tackles in a reserve role. Linebacker Josh Uche has played just 16 snaps over two games. Linebacker Anfernee Jennings has nine tackles in a reserve role. And the two third-round tight ends have done nothing.
▪ K Justin Rohrwasser: He gets his own special entry. The Patriots made Rohrwasser the first kicker drafted this year (fifth round, 159th overall), yet Rohrwasser couldn’t beat out the veteran Folk and is stuck on the practice squad. Rookies Tyler Bass, Sam Sloman, Rodrigo Blankenship, and Joey Slye were all drafted after Rohrwasser (or not at all), and all are performing better.
▪ Short-yardage defense: The Patriots rank dead last in the NFL in stopping third downs with fewer than 4 yards to go, allowing conversions of 19 of 23 attempts (82.6 percent). Interestingly, the Patriots are the only defense yet to face a fourth down. The Titans faced five of them on Thursday night alone.
▪ Bill Belichick: The greatest coach in modern NFL history has been a little off his game this year. He wasn’t able to overcome disruptions in the practice schedule, with the Patriots looking sloppy and ill-prepared for all three games in October.
And Belichick has struggled with end-of-half situations. He declined to use a timeout at the end of the loss to the Seahawks and cost the Patriots at least one more play. He burned his timeouts too quickly against the Chiefs and set up the Brian Hoyer sack disaster at the end of the first half. He called for a field goal with 12 seconds left in the first half against the Bills instead of taking one more shot at the end zone. He took an unnecessary risk against the Bills with a surprise onside kick in the third quarter that gave the momentum back to the other team. And Belichick again let the clock tick down too much at the end of Monday’s win over the Jets, with the Patriots needing an impressive 20-yard completion with three seconds left to overcome the mistake.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.