The Patriots have scored 38 points in back-to-back games, and yet on a conference call Friday morning, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels felt the need for a caveat.
“I’d also add that there’s a lot of things that we didn’t do very well [Thursday] night that we need to make progress on and improve on, and that’s really where we’re going to be focused moving forward,” McDaniels said.
McDaniels answered seven questions and said “improve” four times. He was echoing Tom Brady’s words from the quarterback’s postgame news conference the night before.
The main issue is turnovers, of which there were two in Thursday night’s 38-24 win over the Colts. But it’s not the only issue. Here’s betting McDaniels is in his office right now conjuring up ways to make the Patriots’ offense more explosive, since it’s not in its usual perch near the top of the league leaderboards.
Brady is outside the top 10 in passer rating, yards per attempt, yards per completion, and yards per game. Though he’s off his usual pace, he’s down in the rankings more because others have been especially prolific, not because he’s been bad. With the rules making quarterbacks more comfortable and many coaches emphasizing downfield passing, teams are moving the ball and scoring at record-setting paces. Through four weeks, NFL offenses had set records for completions (2,999), completion percentage (65.4), net passing yards (32,215), touchdown passes (228), and passer rating (94.5).
There were 11 quarterbacks who had thrown for at least 1,200 yards through Week 4, also the most in NFL history, and 12 400-yard performances, also the most ever through four weeks.
Within that context, it’s jarring that Brady (and, for that matter, Aaron Rodgers) hadn’t done so. Brady just had his first 300-plus-yard passing night (341) against the Colts.
Brady was notably lacking in receiver help in the first month of the season, which obviously had something to do with this. With Julian Edelman back and Josh Gordon getting worked into the fold, the Patriots used spread formations more often against the Colts than they seemed to in Weeks 1-4.
“Spreading teams out has become much more the norm in the National Football League than it isn’t, and we certainly want to be able to do a lot of things well and right offensively,” McDaniels said. “When we choose to do that, there’s a lot of people that have to do a lot of things right in order for it to go and be productive. When you spread out, the offensive line doesn’t have a lot of people in there near the tackles. You sometimes tell the defense what types of protection systems you’re using. So, there’s a lot of things that go into it.”
Spreading out doesn’t mean airing it out, though. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, 28 of Brady’s 44 passing attempts against the Colts were within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. The Patriots were still trying to be a paper-cut offense, bleeding the Colts to death with tiny slashes. Gordon’s 34-yard touchdown and Chris Hogan’s 21-yard catch were the only two passes Brady completed of more than 20 yards.
As strange as it is that there’s an offensive explosion going on and Brady and the Patriots haven’t been a big part of it, it’s not necessarily something that will hold them back.
Eventually, defenses will adjust and focus more attention on the short and intermediate areas, which opens up space deep. They could exploit this now because they have Gordon, whose downfield abilities the Patriots either don’t think as much of as the general public does or are saving. Though Gordon caught a long TD pass against the Colts, it was on a broken play and was by far the deepest route he ran in the game.
Clearly, this hasn’t been hurting the Patriots in a meaningful way over the last two weeks, but it’s one reason the offense feels like it’s leaving points on the table and one thing McDaniels is probably looking at during the mini-bye week.
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The Patriots on Saturday afternoon released cornerback Cyrus Jones, whose second stint with the team lasted just three weeks. Jones, a second-round pick of the Patriots in 2016, was waived on cutdown day this year. He was brought back on Sept. 19 — signed off the Ravens’ practice squad — and appeared in two games for New England.
Nora Princiotti can be reached at email@example.com.