In their first loss of the season, the Patriots may have found their offensive identity. They suffered because of penalties and turnovers, but by spreading out and going up-tempo, there were drives where the offense hummed in a way it hasn’t this season.
“I ain’t going to lie,” Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey said last Sunday. “That no-huddle was killing us. When we got to the sideline, we were like, ‘Yo, we have to do something.’ When they were doing that no-huddle, they were almost unstoppable at one point.”
Almost unstoppable? That hasn’t always applied to this unit.
The spread attack is promising because it gets the Patriots’ best playmakers on the field, allows Tom Brady to shine as an at-the-line orchestrator, and can wear down defenses in a way that aids the running game. One unanswered question, though, is what the Patriots would do in the red zone if they adopted more of this type of offense.
So far, the Patriots have scored touchdowns on 20 of 40 trips into the red zone. Their 50 percent touchdown rate is tied for 20th in the NFL with the Jets — and you rarely want to be tied with the Jets, right?
“You take the good with the bad, but at the end of the day, as an offense, we have to score points,” said receiver Mohamed Sanu.
One of the typical challenges of running a spread offense is that it’s more efficient in the middle of the field than in the red zone, when space tightens up. Take Kliff Kingsbury’s Arizona Cardinals, who are 19th in total offense but 29th in red-zone scoring, reaching the end zone on 35 percent of trips inside the 20.
Against Baltimore, the Patriots used one running back, one tight end, and three receivers for the entire game. For all but one play, when Phillip Dorsett took himself out momentarily after getting shaken up, those three receivers were Julian Edelman, Sanu, and Dorsett. Sony Michel, James White, and Rex Burkhead rotated as the running back, but Ben Watson was the only tight end. Ryan Izzo was active but did not play on offense.
In general, that group looked good, but it did settle for field goals on 2 of 4 trips inside the Baltimore 20-yard line. It’s not the personnel you’d think of when trying to design a group to pound the ball in a tight space or win end-zone jump balls.
The Patriots can, and probably will, substitute more often than they did last Sunday. It’s rare for them to substitute as rarely as they did then.
Perhaps N’Keal Harry can win one-on-one matchups and snag jump balls in the end zone, though it remains to be seen how quickly Brady will target Harry in big moments. If they can’t find that kind of red-zone threat, the Patriots will probably need to be more creative, such as Elandon Roberts jumping in as a fullback near the goal line.
“I think we look at it this way: What is the best way to get a run? A productive run? Who do you have to use it and how can they do it? What’s the best way for them to do it?” said running backs coach Ivan Fears. “If that means no fullback, then it means no fullback. If that means, OK, maybe somebody’s got to be back there, maybe somebody would do that better back there than on the line of scrimmage, maybe we’ll use him back there.”
Finding that comes between relying on the looks on offense that have been most efficient and paying attention, as the Patriots always do, to situational football. A spread offense might not be ideal if they just need a yard, but it can help the run game overall by wearing down opposing defenses.
The Patriots only ran 17 times in 65 total plays last Sunday. Playing from behind, they ran only eight times in the second half. Still, it was the best rushing performance of any half the Patriots have played this season: They gained 43 yards on those eight rushes, or 5.4 per carry.
It’s not a fix-all, but while execution was poor against Baltimore, the idea behind the game plan on offense was promising.