It’s easy to look at the Patriots’ record through five games and assume that everything is going according to plan. They had a couple of early-season hiccups against Jacksonville and Detroit, but the Patriots have won two in a row, the offense has scored 38 points in consecutive games, and voila! Everything is fine in Patriots Land.
Except that’s not how the Patriots see things, of course.
The 3-2 record is nice, but they have beaten three mediocre teams at home (Houston, Miami, Indianapolis) and produced two poor performances on the road. And despite the scoring outburst, the Patriots still have plenty work to do on both sides of the ball. They aren’t patting themselves on the back for all that they have accomplished so far.
“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,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said Friday. “And that’s really where we’re going to be focused moving forward.”
Let’s take a look at the areas where the Patriots need to improve (all numbers courtesy of the STATS Inc. databases):
1. Getting Gronk vertical
Rob Gronkowski’s brother said a couple weeks ago that the tight end is a little frustrated this year, and it’s easy to see why. Other than his catch numbers, which are right on track with previous years (on pace for 74), Gronk’s stats are down across the board. His yards per catch (13.4) and yards per game (61.6) are the lowest since his rookie year. His pace of 3.2 touchdowns would be his fewest ever.
Part of it is due to his seeing double-teams through the first four games, particularly with Julian Edelman out. Gronkowski is getting only 6.2 targets per game, down from 7.5 last year, 8.0 in 2015, and 8.7 in 2014.
But part of it is due to Gronk’s not getting open deep down the seams, one of his specialties. Gronkowski has caught 74.2 percent of his passes, the highest rate of his career. Combine that with his low yards per attempt, and it confirms what we’re seeing with our eyes: He is running a lot of short, safe routes, like quick hitches and square-ins.
Entering Sunday’s games, Tom Brady was tied for 17th in passes of 20-plus yards (12), but that number is skewed, as he had a game in hand on the other quarterbacks. Before Thursday night’s game against Indy, Brady had completed the fewest passes in the NFL that have traveled 21-plus yards in the air (1 for 15 for 28 yards), with two interceptions. That’s a 0.0 rating on deep passes.
The passing game in general has to get more vertical, and it starts with finding a way to get Gronkowski in more catch-and-run situations.
2. Get the ball to the wide receivers
Of Brady’s 179 passing targets this season, only 78 have gone to wide receivers (43.6 percent). Only Alex Smith, Nick Foles, and Carson Wentz have a lower percentage of throws to wide receivers. Included in Brady’s numbers are 14 targets to Cordarrelle Patterson, most of them bubble screens.
Brady is league average in targets to his tight ends (20.1 percent, 18th of 37), but he has thrown an inordinate amount of passes to his running backs — 35.8 percent, the highest in the league. James White is second in the NFL with 44 targets, and it is probably a combination of two factors: a significant number of designed plays to White that are low-risk throws, and Brady settling for a checkdown too often. Much of this is a function of the Patriots not having Edelman over the first four games, and having no depth beyond Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, and Patterson. Some of it also comes down to Brady not feeling too comfortable with his receivers. But if the Patriots are going to open up their offense, Brady has to start spreading the ball around to the outside.
3. Protecting the football
The Patriots have been uncharacteristically sloppy with the ball, committing nine turnovers in five games, after committing just 12 all of last season. Brady has six interceptions (though the two against the Colts were mostly on the receivers), and the Patriots have lost three of four fumbles.
The Patriots are on pace for 29 turnovers, which would be the most in the Bill Belichick era (28 in 2001). That sounds bad enough, but the situation is even worse when you consider that the NFL has become a much “safer” league, and turnovers are way down over the last two decades — from 934 in 2000 to 706 last season, a decrease of 24 percent.
This year, the Patriots’ turnovers have directly led to 24 points for their opponents, tied for sixth-most in the NFL.
4. Coming out stronger after halftime
The Patriots have mastered the art of the double-score, getting points right before halftime, and again on the first drive of the third quarter, before the other team has a chance to possess the football. But this season the Patriots are coming out slow after halftime. They have one score in five games (a touchdown against Detroit), with three punts and a lost fumble.
The defense has done a much better job after halftime, allowing just one field goal in the five games, with three punts and an interception.
5. Third-down defense
The Patriots rank 25th in the NFL in third-down defense, allowing a conversion on 44.6 percent of opportunities. A deeper dive into the stats reveals the Patriots are doing well on third-and-medium and third-and-long, but struggling on third-and-short, defined as less than 4 yards. The Patriots have allowed a conversion on all 15 of those occasions. Moving forward, a few short-yardage stops could go a long way.
The Patriots are blitzing a lot this season. Opponents have 48 pass attempts against the Patriots’ blitz, fifth-most in the NFL. And the Patriots are getting crushed by it.
Opposing quarterbacks have a 122.1 passer rating against the Patriots’ blitz, fifth-highest in the league. The Patriots have allowed five touchdowns while blitzing, with no interceptions and just two sacks. They have allowed a first down 44 percent of the time, eighth-worst.
The Patriots need to blitz to make up for a subpar pass rush on the defensive line, but the blitz isn’t getting home.
7. Special teams
Compared with the rest of the NFL, the Patriots spend a lot of resources on special teams — practice time, roster spots, and salary cap space — yet the special teams have been uncharacteristically sloppy.
The Patriots are ranked 25th in punt coverage, allowing 11.8 yards per return. The kickoff unit ranks 29th in opponents’ starting field position (26.1-yard line).
The Patriots used to kick short last season to try to pin teams deep with their coverage units, but Belichick may have decided the strategy isn’t worth it anymore with the bevy of new kickoff rules. Houston’s Tyler Ervin went off for 156 yards on five returns in the season opener, and since then, Stephen Gostkowski has banged 14 of his 17 kickoffs for touchbacks.
The Patriots also have committed eight penalties for 73 yards on special teams, both the sixth-most in the NFL.