BEN VOLIN | ON FOOTBALL
Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff
Half of the 2017 season is complete, and the Patriots are on pace to accomplish something that no NFL team has done this century.
It is a feat that is at once impressive and disheartening.
After eight regular-season games, the Patriots featured the NFL’s No. 1 offense based on total yards. The Patriots also featured the NFL’s No. 32-ranked defense based on total yards.
The absolute best on offense. The absolute worst on defense. No team has pulled that off over a full season since the 1985 San Diego Chargers.
Except that doesn’t sound quite right when it comes to the 6-2 Patriots. The defense has shown significant improvement in recent weeks, while the offense is starting to sputter.
The Patriots hit the bye ranked No. 7 in points scored and No. 18 in points allowed. That sounds more like it.
The Patriots have been very good, but not as great as expected. They have had uncharacteristic breakdowns on defense, and troubles finishing on offense. They have scored 22 touchdowns, and allowed 22 touchdowns. They struggle in the fourth quarter, have lost twice at home, and have put together only two complete games — wins over the Saints and Falcons.
Yet they’re still right there atop the AFC, ready to make their annual run to the No. 1 playoff seed.
We could have gone with a few literary devices for our Patriots Midseason Report — maybe a Position by Position breakdown; or Offense, Defense, Special Teams, and Coaching. Instead, let’s mix it all together with the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly for the first half of the Patriots’ 2017 season. (All stats are as of the completion of Week 8.)
■ Tom Brady. Look at every significant QB stat, and Brady is at or near the top. He’s the only quarterback averaging 300 passing yards per game (317.6). He has 16 touchdowns against two interceptions. He leads the league in completions (206), attempts (309), and 20-yard passes (34). He’s second in passer rating (106.5) and 40-yard completions (7), third in yards per attempt (8.2), and fifth in completion percentage (66.7). He has two of the league’s seven highest passing games of the season, 447 yards against the Saints and 378 against the Texans.
Not bad for a 40-year-old.
■ The deep ball. Brady has been stretching out his arm this season, and hitting on big plays. The Patriots lead the NFL in explosive plays, defined as runs of at least 11 yards and passes of at least 15 yards. They have 81 such plays, followed by the Rams with 73. Brady’s 24 completions of 25-plus yards also lead the NFL. Brandin Cooks’s 17.1 yards per reception are sixth in the league. His four catches of 40 yards are tied for the most in the NFL, and his seven catches of 25-plus yards are tied for second.
■ Cooks. He hasn’t been as consistent as we expected, sometimes disappearing for significant stretches of games. And his catch rate could be better (33 of 54, 61 percent). But there’s no doubt that Cooks has been a solid addition to the offense, particularly as a home run hitter. Cooks has a team-high 563 receiving yards, fifth most in the NFL.
■ The running backs. On the whole, running back has been the most consistent position on the offense (other than quarterback). All four backs have carved out a role, and for two games in a row each has handled the football at least six times, an impressive display of balance and productivity.
Dion Lewis is finally healthy after two knee surgeries and has been a revelation, emerging as the lead back over the last month. He’s averaging 4.7 yards per carry, displaying surprising power and an ability to gain yards after contact, and also is seventh in the NFL in kickoff return average, with a long of 71 yards. James White is tied for eighth in the NFL in catches with a team-high 43, and has been impressive on third down (13 catches, tied for seventh most in the NFL) and with his pass protection.
Rex Burkhead missed 4½ games with a rib injury, but he’s averaging 4.3 yards per carry, has caught 12 of 15 passes for 128 yards and a touchdown, and also has been great in blitz pickup. Mike Gillislee’s play has tailed off of late, and he is averaging a disappointing 3.6 yards per carry, but he does have four touchdowns and has been good in spurts.
■ S Devin McCourty. He’s our choice for Patriots defensive MVP over the first half. McCourty, the team’s first-round pick in 2010, has developed into quite a versatile weapon in his eighth season. The Patriots use him to patrol center field as a Pro Bowl-caliber free safety. They bring him down in the box as an extra run defender. They use him on the line of scrimmage to cover tight ends and receivers. He’s been a tackling machine, leading the team with 57. And most impressively, he has played 528 of 529 snaps this season, missing one in the opener against the Chiefs. In our view, McCourty is more irreplaceable to the defense than Dont’a Hightower.
■ DE Trey Flowers, LB Kyle Van Noy, DT Malcom Brown, CB Jonathan Jones. These four youngsters have taken a step forward and have performed well in bigger roles. Flowers leads the defense with 3.5 sacks, is third with 37 tackles, and most impressively, has played 91.1 percent of the snaps, fourth most on the defense. Van Noy had taken over the every-down linebacker role in the defense before Hightower got hurt, wearing the green dot as the signal caller and performing a variety of roles. He has shown good speed in covering running backs in the passing game, is a capable blitzer with 3.5 sacks, can play in the middle or on the edge, and has played 507 of 529 snaps (95.8 percent). Brown doesn’t have big numbers — 24 tackles and a sack — but he is developing into a key run stuffer in his third season and was playing in 63 percent of snaps before he got hurt in Week 7. And Jones, undrafted out of Auburn in 2016, has developed into a scrappy slot cornerback in his second season, in addition to playing a key role on special teams. Jones has an interception and is second on the team with six pass breakups, while playing only 32.7 percent of snaps.
■ Third-down offense. The Patriots are No. 3 in the NFL on third down, converting 45.9 percent of their opportunities. And they are tied with the Eagles for the most conversions of third and 11 or longer, with eight. Brady’s passer rating on third down is 112.1, third best among QBs.
■ Playing on the road. The Patriots are 3-0 on the road, and all three wins were impressive. They dominated the Saints, who at 6-2 are one of the NFL’s best teams, from start to finish. They had a big defensive turnaround on a short week against the Buccaneers. And they overcame a 14-0 deficit to take care of the Jets, who are never fun to play. The Patriots went 8-0 on the road last season, and haven’t lost on the road since Week 17 at Miami in 2015, then in the AFC Championship game that season in Denver.
■ Offensive line cohesion. The unit hasn’t always performed at a high level, but the offensive line has been durable and looks like it is rounding into form. Shaq Mason, Joe Thuney, and David Andrews have played all 594 snaps this year. Nate Solder has played 591 of 594, only leaving the game by rule because he played as a tackle eligible. And Marcus Cannon has shaken off a bad start with excellent play over the last month, though he has missed 1½ games with injury. LaAdrian Waddle played admirably in Cannon’s place against the Texans and Chargers.
■ Coverage teams. The Patriots’ special teams have been excellent. They are sixth best in kickoff returns, seventh best in punt returns, and last week recorded the first safety on a punt return in the NFL since 2003. The Patriots are averaging 10.5 yards per punt return, but allowing only 5.6 yards per return. The Patriots have also blocked/tipped two field goals this season, while their opponents have only made 9 of 16 field goals, the lowest percentage in the league.
■ Stephen Gostkowski. You’d like to see him hit those missed 43-yarders against the Chargers, and you still hold your breath on his extra points (though he has only missed 1 out of 21 this season). But he has been phenomenal on the high, short kickoffs. Gostkowski has the second-lowest touchback percentage in the NFL (39.6), and the Patriots are No. 2 in the NFL in average starting field position for the opponent following a kickoff (23-yard line). The Patriots have 12 kickoff returns, while their opponents have 29.
■ Giveaways. The Patriots have the third-fewest giveaways in the NFL with five (three lost fumbles, two interceptions). Overall, the Patriots are eighth in the NFL with a plus-4 turnover ratio.
■ Red zone defense. The Patriots’ defense has the lowest score percentage in the NFL, allowing scores on 18 of 25 red zone possessions (72 percent). They’re more middle of the pack when it comes to allowing touchdowns, though, allowing 13 TDs on 25 trips (14th best).
■ Jumping out to early leads. The Patriots have the most first-half touchdowns in the NFL (16), and are second in the NFL in first-half scoring (17.9 points per game).
■ Replacing Julian Edelman. The Patriots’ short passing game is a little lacking, but as a group Brady’s weapons have been balanced and productive without Edelman. Danny Amendola, Cooks, Chris Hogan, Rob Gronkowski, and White all have between 31 and 43 catches and between 338 and 563 yards. Hogan has emerged as a touchdown machine (five), White and Gronkowski have been huge on third down (13 catches each), and Amendola has already surpassed most of his stats from last season. Gronk has been a bit tentative at times, and he did miss that Bucs game with a groin injury, but otherwise has played in 91 percent of snaps in his seven games, showing impressive durability following his third career back surgery last offseason.
■ DE Deatrich Wise and DT Adam Butler. The Patriots basically punted on this year’s draft, but Wise and Butler have emerged as productive rookies. Wise, a fourth-round pick, has three sacks and has provided consistent pressure while playing in 51.4 percent of snaps. Butler, undrafted out of Vanderbilt, has played in 39.5 percent of snaps and has one sack as a key piece of the team’s “big nickel” package.
■ CB Johnson Bademosi. Acquired from Detroit right before the season, Bademosi has been an important special teams contributor (third on the team with four tackles), but has also filled in admirably at cornerback for the last three weeks with Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe out with injuries. Bademosi has played 184 of 189 snaps the last three games, showing good tackling ability and physicality and holding his own in coverage against talented receivers on the Falcons and Chargers.
■ Brady’s accuracy. This is more anecdotal than statistical, because Brady’s completion percentage is still very good. But Brady has looked a little off this year, whether he’s overthrowing a wide-open Hogan for an interception against Tampa Bay, or throwing behind Hogan and getting him crushed in the ribs by two Jets defenders, or throwing into double coverage to Cooks against the Chargers instead of Hogan streaking wide open for a touchdown.
■ Offensive and special teams penalties. Overall, the Patriots are tied for the seventh-most penalties in the NFL (65). But they have committed 27 on offense, 17 on defense, and a whopping 15 on special teams, which matches last year’s total. Six penalties have been offsetting or declined. The Patriots are the league’s worst offender at offensive pass interference (six) and illegal blocks above the waist (five). Brandon Bolden has four penalties on special teams alone. (All stats via NFLPenalties.com.)
■ Red zone offense. The Patriots are tied for 17th by scoring touchdowns on just 50 percent of their red zone trips, though they have come away with points in 31 of 34 opportunities.
■ The front seven. The Patriots are 21st in the NFL with 16 sacks, and they’re just 24th in sacks per pass play. Sacks aren’t the only metric for pressure, but the lack of a pass rush played a big factor in the Patriots allowing a 300-yard passer for six straight games to start the season. The Patriots also have the fewest run stuffs in the NFL (11), they’re 22nd in forced fumbles (four), and they’re 31st in tackles for loss (27).
■ Most of the offseason moves. Cooks has been good (though not as great as maybe many of us were expecting). Burkhead has been good when healthy. Defensive tackle Lawrence Guy has been solid in the run game. Bademosi has been good in his role.
Otherwise, the offseason moves are not working out according to plan. Gilmore has been OK, but he was at the center of those early-season communication breakdowns, and he certainly has not justified the massive contract he signed this spring. Cassius Marsh has been OK as a pass rusher, but not OK as an edge setter in the run game. Gillislee has been disappointing in short-yardage situations and has lost his grip on the lead running back spot to Lewis. Dwayne Allen still doesn’t have a catch this year as the No. 2 tight end. David Harris was a healthy scratch three times and played just seven snaps in the first six games before Hightower’s injury forced him onto the field. Alan Branch signed a two-year deal in the offseason, then lost his starting job to Guy and was left home from the Tampa Bay game. Phillip Dorsett, acquired for Jacoby Brissett, has just four catches for 85 yards as he battles through a groin injury. Defensive end Kony Ealy, released during training camp, is thriving for the Jets.
■ The draft. Cooks has been good, but has he justified the price tag of the first-round pick? Trading down to acquire Ealy turned out to be a big failure. Both third-round picks are out for the year — pass rusher Derek Rivers (ACL) and tackle Tony Garcia (non-football illness). The Patriots traded their fifth-round pick for TE James O’Shaughnessy, then cut him at the end of camp and watched as six teams put in a waiver claim (the Jaguars got him). And sixth-round pick Conor McDermott was released and picked up by Buffalo.
■ LT Nate Solder. He has struggled with speed rushers all season, and is having a bit of a down year in his last season before free agency. Pro Football Focus has him ranked 56th out of 74 offensive tackles, and ranked 61st in pass protection. Solder also leads the Patriots with six penalties (three for holding), tied for the 14th-most penalties in the NFL.
■ Takeaways. The Patriots are tied for 21st in the NFL with just nine takeaways, and their six interceptions are tied for 17th.
■ Second-half scoring. As good as the Patriots have been at scoring in the first half, they’ve been just as bad in the second half. They’re tied for 28th in second-half touchdowns (six) and 20th in points per game (9.1).
■ CB Malcolm Butler. He hasn’t been bad, per se, and he deserves credit for playing in 96.2 percent of snaps this year. But Butler has been surprisingly inconsistent for a player fighting for a big contract this offseason. He’s been at the heart of some of the Patriots’ big communication breakdowns, gave up a bad touchdown to Travis Benjamin last week, and lost a fight for the ball against Julio Jones two weeks ago.
■ The injury situation. It’s not at critical mass yet, but the bad injuries are starting to pile up. Hightower and Edelman, two of the five most indispensable players, are gone for the year. Hogan’s right arm is in a sling. Amendola is battling through a knee injury. Gilmore missed the last three games with ankle and concussion injuries. Shea McClellin missed the first half of the season, Cyrus Jones tore his ACL in training camp, and Malcolm Mitchell might not play this year.
■ P Ryan Allen. He has passed the eye test this season, and hasn’t noticeably stood out as good or bad. But Allen is tied for 28th in net punting average, and the stats are the stats.
■ The flea-flicker. The Patriots have already run this play twice, throwing incomplete against the Chiefs and Chargers. It’s time to put this one on the shelf and come up with another trick play.
■ Big plays on defense. The Patriots have gotten better in this area over the last four weeks. But the number of big plays they have allowed overall is fairly staggering. The Patriots are still having nightmares of Chiefs and Panthers receivers running a track meet up and down the field at Gillette Stadium. (Big plays are defined as passes of 40 yards or longer and runs of 20 yards or longer.)
This season, the Patriots have allowed six big passes and five big runs. They allowed five big passes and three big runs all last season. In 2015, it was nine and seven, in 2014 it was eight and two.
Last year, the longest touchdown allowed by the Patriots was a 26-yard rush by Tyrod Taylor. This year, they’ve allowed touchdowns of 75 and 78 yards against the Chiefs, and an 87-yard run by Chargers RB Melvin Gordon, the longest play allowed by the Patriots since Odell Beckham went 87 yards for a touchdown in 2015.
■ Pass defense. Raise your hand if after eight games you expected the Patriots to be ranked 32nd in total defense, 32nd in pass defense, and 31st in yards per attempt allowed. Thought so. They became the first team in NFL history to allow 300-yard passers in six straight games, and among those that carved them up were Alex Smith, Deshaun Watson making his first career road start, a struggling Cam Newton, Jameis Winston, and Josh McCown. Opposing quarterbacks have a 101.0 passer rating against the Patriots, with 2,474 passing yards, 65.8 completion percentage, 16 TDs, 6 INTs, and a long of 78 yards. Basically, the Patriots are facing Tom Brady every week.
■ Run defense. The run defense has been just as bad. The Patriots are allowing 5.1 yards per carry, second worst in the NFL. That Gordon touchdown run was atrocious, and the Patriots have allowed two 50-yard rushes this year after allowing none between 2014-16 (and that’s as far back as we looked).
■ TE Dwayne Allen. We mentioned him with the rest of the offseason moves, but Allen deserves his own section. He’s been OK as a run blocker, but the fact that he has zero catches after eight games is pretty incredible.
The Patriots chose Allen over Martellus Bennett, who signed with Green Bay for $8 million this year. They’re paying Allen $5 million this year to be the No. 2 tight end, and he cost them draft capital — the Patriots traded a fourth-round pick to acquire Allen and a sixth-rounder. And while Bennett led the Patriots with seven touchdowns last year, Allen has not caught a single pass in six targets. Some of Brady’s throws were poor, and maybe it’s not Allen’s fault that the Patriots aren’t looking to him in the red zone. But it probably is.
■ Short-yardage running. The Patriots have only converted 8 of 15 attempts on third and 1 (53 percent), with the league average around 63 percent. The Patriots are just 6 of 10 when rushing on third and 1, and Gillislee has been a disappointing 3 of 6. Gillislee is also just 1 for 3 on fourth and 1, making him 4 of 9 combined in those short-yardage scenarios.
The short-yardage running has been bad enough that Brady has attempted five passes on third and 1, but he has only converted two. The offensive line deserves as much blame as Gillislee, but the Patriots’ struggles in short-yardage situations are troubling.
■ First-down defense. The Patriots’ defense is allowing a league-worst 7.44 yards on first down. The next-worst team is the Colts at 6.73 yards. The league average is 5.33 yards. Think about that — the Patriots are more than 2 full yards worse on first down than the league average.
■ Fourth-quarter scoring. The Patriots historically are a strong 60-minute team, but not this season. They have been outscored, 67-37, in the fourth quarter, and fell apart twice at home, to the Chiefs and Panthers. It’s hard to discern which is more troubling — that they can’t put up points in the fourth quarter, or they can’t seem to keep teams out of the end zone.
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