When the Patriots hired offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien in January, the expectation was that he would serve as a key figure in reinvigorating quarterback Mac Jones. O’Brien’s scheme would emphasize concepts to put the offense in a position to succeed with creative and versatile play-calling.
All summer, players praised O’Brien for his approach. And through two weeks of the regular season, the operation is certainly running smoother than it was a year ago.
Yet New England’s offense has still struggled to find the end zone. The 0-2 Patriots are moving the ball but averaging just 18.5 points per game, which ranks 22nd in the league.
For now, the woes can be attributed to the offensive line.
The Patriots have yet to play a game with all five of their projected starting linemen as a result of injuries. Guards Michael Onwenu (ankle) and Cole Strange (knee) missed Week 1, while left tackle Trent Brown (concussion) sat out Week 2. Riley Reiff (knee), who was in contention to start at right tackle, remains on injured reserve.
But the group is in line for its debut in Week 3. The team removed Brown from the injury report Friday. If Brown, Strange, center David Andrews, Onwenu, and right tackle Calvin Anderson are all good to go, the hope is the fortified presence upfront will help address some of the problems plaguing the offense.
The run game, initially considered a strength, has been ineffective. The Patriots are averaging just 82 rushing yards per game, which ranks 27th in the league. Their run-blocking unit ranks at the bottom of the league, according to multiple metrics.
Rhamondre Stevenson is one of New England’s most dynamic playmakers, but he has not been able to fully showcase his physicality, jump cuts, and ability to break tackles. August acquisition Ezekiel Elliott, touted as the ideal complement to Stevenson, has been a non-factor.
Asked what the tandem can do to get going, Elliott gave a straightforward answer.
“We’ve just got to win the line of scrimmage,” he said. “No other way to put it: Just win the line of scrimmage.”
The lack of a strong presence on the ground has limited the Patriots in other areas, too. The thought was that O’Brien would integrate more run-pass options and play-action passes — two keys for Jones’s past success — but neither have occurred at the expected frequency.
Jones’s play-action rate (13.3 percent) ranks 29th in the league through two weeks.
“It all starts up front,” Andrews said. “You run the football, it opens up a lot of things, whether it’s screens, play-actions, not having to throw it 50 times. That’s a huge part, especially against a good front. You don’t want to do that.”
A strengthened offensive line would undoubtedly benefit the passing game, as well. Jones has demonstrated marked improvement under pressure this season. According to Pro Football Focus, when under pressure last season, Jones registered a quarterback rating of 35.1 and threw three touchdowns, along with eight interceptions.
This year? His quarterback rating is 79.6, with one touchdown and no interceptions. He has the fifth-highest graded rating when under pressure.
Still, a quarterback regularly under duress is not conducive to success. Opposing defenses have blitzed Jones 33 times, tied for the most in the league, and hurried him 17 times, again tied for the most in the league. His time in the pocket ranks at the bottom of the league.
Jones has been forced to get rid of the ball quickly, which is increasing the pressure on his receivers. The Patriots have recorded just two plays generating a gain more than 20 yards.
Because of a number of factors, including their situation on the line, the Patriots have yet to establish their offensive identity.
“People say the game’s changing and all that,” Andrews said. “There is some truth to that. But, at the end of the day, a good team is a balanced football team. They can run the ball. They can throw the ball. They can do all the phases.”
If nothing changes even with a completely healthy offensive line, then questions regarding the team’s roster construction will come to the forefront.
For now, though, O’Brien, Jones, and the rest of the offense are hoping a consistent and competent O-line will unlock more success.
“We can control what we can control,” Andrews said. “The biggest thing for that is being efficient in the running game and doing a better job upfront.”