FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots haven’t been this atrocious on third down since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady came to New England.
Times change. Reality shifts. Once exceedingly dangerous in third-down situations, New England can’t seem to move the chains when it has possession or get off the field when it doesn’t, hardly a recipe for success in the modern NFL.
Sunday night in Detroit, the Patriots lost their second straight game, 26-10. They allowed the Lions to convert on half of their third-down opportunities. On offense, New England went just 2 for 9 on third down.
One week of bad execution isn’t cause for concern. Three weeks of bad execution weave a sorrier tale.
The Patriots rank 29th in the league in third-down conversion rate, successful only 28.6 percent of the time (10 for 35). New England’s defense has been even worse, allowing opponents to move the sticks on 19 of 39 third downs (48.7 percent), good for 30th in the NFL.
Defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr. expressed confidence New England’s third-down woes would fizzle Sunday at Gillette Stadium against the 3-0 Miami Dolphins.
“It doesn’t matter what area of the field,” he said, “once third down comes, we need to stop them, and we will.”
For that to happen, sweeping improvements need to be made.
It all starts with the pass rush. The Patriots have registered a measly four sacks in three games, and the front seven hasn’t been disruptive since facing a Houston Texans offensive line that resembled Swiss cheese in the season opener. Much of that has to do with the absence of primary edge-rusher Trey Flowers (concussion), who returned to practice Wednesday in limited fashion.
Both Blake Bortles and Matthew Stafford had eons to operate in an uncongested pocket, able to progress through their reads unencumbered before slinging the ball.
The Patriots’ secondary has been pinned with a laborious and unrewarding mission as the pass rush flounders, tasked with blanketing receivers for several beats. It too has suffered key injuries, namely to safety Patrick Chung (concussion) and cornerback Eric Rowe (groin).
Oftentimes teams will play zone coverage when a third down distance is sizable, hoping to induce a checkdown. Third-and-short situations more frequently call for man-to-man schemes, with press coverage a must.
New England has been falling short in both areas.
“In zone, there are times where we may not be dropping into our right coverage,” said cornerback Jason McCourty. “Route recognition once we’re in the zone [is important], making sure you’re at the sticks and you’re seeing a certain route combination and recognizing and breaking on it.
“When we’re in man, you have to win your one-on-one matchups. If that’s me on the edge, if it’s man to man and it’s third and 4, if it’s a slant, out, whatever the route is, I need to come up and find a way to get that ball out and get us off the field.”
New England’s opponent third-down conversion rate wasn’t even this poor in 2010, when it finished last in the NFL by nearly 4 percentage points (47.09 percent).
The offense hasn’t been any better.
Tom Brady is just 1 for 8 when targeting Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett on third down, his two primary targets at wideout to date in 2018. New England’s drives have lasted an average of 2 minutes, 23 seconds, good for 22nd in the NFL.
“Everybody just has to go a little harder,” said Dorsett. “We have to play a little harder, we have to keep grinding. It’ll come. We’re still working out some things. I wouldn’t say the mind-set has to change.”
Getting Julian Edelman back from a PED suspension in Week 5 should do wonders. Edelman is one of the best slot receivers in football, and slot receivers live for third down. His presence will create more space for tight end Rob Gronkowski and third-down running back specialist James White to operate.
There’s no fix-all to the issues at hand. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower said the Patriots must improve on earlier downs, too, so as not to dig themselves into holes from which they can’t escape. That applies on both ends. New England lacked creativity in Detroit with its early-down offensive play calling, settling for uninspired runs rather than opening up the playbook.
“The opportunities are there, we’re just not converting,” said center David Andrews. “Luckily we have Sunday to go out there and right those wrongs.”
New England’s defensive output on third down has varied over the years, but it has always been stellar converting on offense.
Excellence in overlooked areas and sound execution on key downs has long been a Patriots staple. If third down is no longer a given in New England, the Patriots may need to reassess where they fall in the hierarchy of the NFL’s best.
Owen Pence can be reached at email@example.com.