What’s wrong with the Patriots this year?
The Patriots have entered unfamiliar territory in the 2018 season.
They have lost five games for the first time since 2009. They are scoring their fewest points (26.7 per game) since 2009. They have a losing record on the road for the first time since . . . wait for it . . . 2009.
The season is by no means over. The No. 2 seed, which comes with a first-round bye and a second-round home game, is absolutely within reach.
But this year’s Patriots team is struggling like we haven’t seen in nearly a decade under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
What’s going on with the Patriots, and why are they limping to the finish line? Here are five areas that help explain their struggles:
1. The offseason was underwhelming, and the team didn’t address many needs on offense.
The 2018 offseason for the Patriots was mostly about players leaving, not coming. They let Nate Solder, Dion Lewis, and Danny Amendola walk away in free agency, and they traded Brandin Cooks to the Rams. But they didn’t exactly restock the cupboard with new talent, either with veterans or rookies.
The offense going into the season featured all of the same old names, but a year older — Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Chris Hogan, James White, and Rex Burkhead. The Patriots may have overestimated how much Brady, Gronk, and Edelman have left in the tank. Brady has his lowest passer rating and most interceptions since 2013 and is 25th among quarterbacks against the blitz. Gronkowski looks slow and stiff and is on pace for a career-low in touchdowns and receiving yards per game. Edelman’s seven drops are tied for second most in the NFL, and he missed four games.
The Patriots brought in a few new players on offense, but none has provided a big spark. Sony Michel replaced Dion Lewis but hasn’t been nearly as dynamic. Cordarrelle Patterson gets only 4.1 touches and 15 snaps per game. The Patriots had no idea Josh Gordon would fall in their lap, and they have been lucky he did, because he’s their only consistent explosive offensive player. But no one has replaced Amendola and his clutch, consistent performance on third down and in big moments.
Instead, the Patriots went bargain shopping in the offseason. And the result is an offense that looks a year past its prime.
The Patriots are currently No. 7 in the NFL in scoring, which would be their lowest ranking since 2008. And their downfield passing attack is in dire shape. Hogan’s 63-yard touchdown on Sunday was their longest play of the season, but is only the 50th longest play in the NFL this year.
On passes that go 21-plus yards in the air, Brady ranks 23rd in attempts, 25th in passer rating (75.6), and 28th in completion percentage (30.6). Last year, Brady had the third most downfield passing attempts, and in 2016 his passer rating was fifth best in this area (117.0).
2. The offseason was pretty underwhelming for the defense, too.
The unit that got gashed by the Eagles in Super Bowl LII was mostly kept intact. They replaced Malcolm Butler with Jason McCourty for a fraction of the cost, signed Adrian Clayborn for two years and $6 million, and hired a martial arts coach to teach some new moves to the pass rushers. Everyone else is the same — Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung, etc. etc.
The result is a defense that looks a lot like last year’s — one that can’t rush the passer, doesn’t have much speed up front, and can’t take over a game. The Patriots are 13th in points allowed and 29th in sacks — and Clayborn has barely made an impact.
The defense hasn’t been terrible, but the Patriots didn’t do anything to improve the unit from last year. And it hasn’t been great enough to overcome an inconsistent offense.
3. They can’t come back from a deficit.
The hallmark of the Patriots’ dynasty is their ability to overcome adversity and to execute in key moments. But this year’s team has been anything but clutch or mentally tough.
The only game the Patriots have come from behind to win was the Week 7 game at Chicago, when the Bears led, 17-7, before the Patriots went on a tear and made the score 38-24 in the fourth quarter. In their eight other wins, the Patriots have grabbed an early lead and held on for victory.
But their losses? The Patriots fell behind, 21-3, to Jacksonville, briefly made it competitive, then lost, 31-20. They fell behind, 13-0, to Detroit, made it 13-10, then got crushed, 26-10. They fell behind, 17-3, to the Titans, cut it to 17-10, then got blown out, 34-10. They fell behind, 14-7, to the Steelers, cut it to 14-10, then couldn’t complete the comeback and lost, 17-10.
Sense a theme?
Brady has been unusually un-clutch, throwing five fourth-quarter interceptions this year, the second most in the NFL behind Sam Darnold.
4. The Patriots have been uncharacteristically sloppy.
The Patriots are always smarter and better coached than the other team, but not nearly as much this year. Their 15 turnovers are their most since 2013, and they still have two games to play. Brady is throwing interceptions at his highest rate since 2013, too. His interception in the red zone against the Steelers, and his inability to remember the Patriots’ timeout situation at the end of the first half against the Dolphins, were two mistakes that Brady has rarely, if ever, made over his 19-year career.
And while the Patriots have committed the sixth fewest penalties in the NFL this season, they have committed a ton of late. They had 11 for 105 yards against the Jets, seven for 60 yards against the Vikings, and 14 for 106 yards against the Steelers. Those 14 penalties are tied for the second most the Patriots have committed in a game under Belichick (15 at Minnesota in 2014, 14 at Denver in 2003).
And let’s not forget the enormous coaching blunder at the end of the Miami game, when they put Gronkowski on the field for Devin McCourty. Certainly not Belichick’s finest moment.
5. They can’t run the ball or stop the run.
The Patriots’ inability to control the line of scrimmage is glaring.
On offense, the Patriots are 28th in the NFL in yards per attempt (4.1). Last year’s numbers were only slightly better (4.2), but they ranked 12th in the NFL.
In his last three games, Michel is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry. The Patriots’ short-yardage running has been especially bad — Michel is converting 73.3 percent of third- and fourth-and-1 opportunities, which ranks 26th out of 53 players. His 1.2 yards per carry in those situations ranks 47th out of 53.
Their inability to pick up short-yardage opportunities is hurting them in the red zone. The Patriots are 26th in the NFL in goal-to-goal efficiency, with a touchdown just 63.3 percent of the time. The Patriots are only 16th in red zone touchdowns overall (58 percent).
And the run defense is getting gashed as well. The Patriots are allowing 5.0 yards per carry, 31st in the NFL. The Steelers and Dolphins have combined for 347 rushing yards on 7.5 yards per carry the last two weeks.
In 2016, the Patriots allowed just 3.9 yards per carry, eighth best in the NFL. In 2015 they were 11th, and in 2014 they were ninth.
But this year, the defense is getting blown off the line of scrimmage.