FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots’ offense opened Sunday’s game against the Jets with a three-and-out drive, an outcome that lately has become the norm.
In case you’ve lost count, the unit has started each of the past four games by going three and out. The first drive of the game should be an opportunity to demonstrate preparedness, set the tone, and flex effective play-calling. But the Patriots can’t seem to get anything going. And in three of their past four games, they’ve also gone three and out on their second drive, too.
Throughout training camp and the first nine weeks of the season, the Patriots preached patience. (Remember when “process” was coach Bill Belichick’s buzzword?) The offensive players and coaches expressed faith that the new, streamlined offense would eventually find its way, that the passing attack would establish some consistency.
Now, 11 weeks in, the unit looks dysfunctional and unreliable.
The Patriots are the only team in the NFL without a first-quarter touchdown. Headed into Sunday’s game, they were tied for 24th in the league with 22 total touchdowns. Their nine passing touchdowns were tied for 30th. Their red zone conversion rate of 46.15 percent was tied for 28th.
Thanks to the heroics of rookie cornerback Marcus Jones, who returned a punt 84 yards in the final seconds for the game-winning touchdown, the Patriots escaped Gillette Stadium with a much-needed 10-3 win. Their playoff hopes are still alive.
Although Jones may have stolen the show, the offensive issues cannot be ignored.
Against the Jets, quarterback Mac Jones turned in his best stat line since returning to the field from a high ankle sprain that sidelined him for three weeks, completing 85 percent of his pass attempts for 246 yards. The Patriots outgained the Jets in total yards, 297-103, and still needed a miraculous special teams play to win the game.
So, what gives?
The offensive line is a major factor, as it allowed six sacks and has struggled in protection all season. The unit has been shuffled because of injuries, coaching decisions, and performance-related issues — and that state of flux will only continue after center David Andrews (thigh) and tackle Isaiah Wynn (foot) left Sunday’s game early.
New England’s play-calling also has come under fire. The bulk of the team’s notable gains come out of play-action, yet the Patriots rank at the bottom of the league in play-action rate. Senior football adviser Matt Patricia has called several head-scratchers, most recently the shot-gun handoff for no gain on a failed fourth-down conversion at the end of the third quarter.
The players are saying all the right things amid the struggles, stressing the importance of finishing drives, reducing mistakes, and executing fundamentals. They know things need to improve.
“It’s super frustrating,” said tight end Hunter Henry. “It’s not good enough on our side of the ball. It’s just not. We’re not bringing it. We move the ball and we’ll execute, but then we’ll just beat ourselves and do not very smart things. It’s the same script. We have to fix it.”
Added running back Damien Harris, “The positive mind-set needs to come from — we’re moving the ball, we know that we can have positive plays, and we know that we got guys that can make plays. We just have to do it more consistently.”
Those words, however, will ring hollow if the problems persist.
Up next is four consecutive prime-time games, starting with a Thanksgiving matchup in Minnesota. Then, the Patriots host Buffalo on the following Thursday, travel to Arizona for a Monday night game, and finally visit Las Vegas for a Sunday night showdown against former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
As the Patriots push for a playoff berth, the pieces for a successful stretch run are there. Running back Rhamondre Stevenson is a dynamic playmaker who can break tackles after contact. Kicker Nick Folk, despite missing two field goal attempts Sunday, is usually automatic. The defense and special teams units have proven capable of making game-defining plays.
But the offense needs to hold up its end of the bargain for the Patriots to achieve success. If not, their warts will soon be exposed on national television for all to see.
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