Ben Volin | On Football

Five things the Patriots need to improve on in the second half

Running back Sony Michel has broken just two tackles all season, and he averages 1.5 yards after contact.
Running back Sony Michel has broken just two tackles all season, and he averages 1.5 yards after contact.barry chin/globe staff/Globe Staff

The Patriots entered their bye last weekend with an 8-1 record and the No. 1 seed in the AFC, but they knew they had some work to do.

The bye week offered a good opportunity for them to self-scout and try to improve some of their weaker areas as they gear up for the final seven games of the season.

“We certainly try to evaluate what we may be able to do differently,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said this week. “You can’t do everything in a bye week; it’s impossible to go over every single thing. If you try to do too much, sometimes I’ve found out in the past, nothing ends up getting accomplished.


“I try to pick out a few things that we can figure out to try to make progress in and work with your guys in.”

Thankfully, I’m here to help. Here are five areas where the Patriots need to improve over the second half of the season (numbers courtesy of Stats LLC):

1. Offensive line

The offensive line isn’t playing up to its usual standards, though it’s not simply a case of players underperforming. Two key starters have been missing for most of the season in center David Andrews and left tackle Isaiah Wynn, and fullback James Develin has been a big loss, as well. Ted Karras and Marshall Newhouse have filled in as best they can, but they are what they are: backup players.

The pass protection has been inconsistent, and Newhouse has had a rough go at left tackle, though the numbers are better than you think. The Patriots have allowed the fourth-fewest sacks (16), fifth-fewest hurries (75), 11th-fewest QB knockdowns (43), and have committed the third-fewest holding penalties (8). But those numbers are skewed a bit by Tom Brady’s ability to get rid of the football before taking a negative play; Brady has 24 intentional throwaways, second only to Aaron Rodgers (29).


But the run blocking has been especially subpar. The Patriots are averaging 3.3 yards per carry, third-worst in the NFL, ahead of only the Jets and Dolphins. They have had a negative run on 9.3 percent of their carries, 14th-most in the league. They have gained 4 yards on a run just 38.3 percent of the time, tied for fourth-worst.

The Patriots aren’t breaking open big runs; they are one of seven teams not to have a 30-yard gain. They have only three runs of 20-plus yards, tied for sixth-fewest.

Patriots run game
Stat How the Patriots perform NFL rank
Yards per carry 3.3 yards 30
Negative runs 9.3 percent of runs 18
Runs 4 yards or more 38.3 percent of runs 29
Runs 20 yards or more 3 runs 27

And they are struggling in short yardage, as well. The Patriots have converted only 10 of 15 rushing opportunities on third or fourth and 1, a 66.7 percent success rate that ranks 20th.

Not surprisingly, the Patriots are running heavily to the right, behind Marcus Cannon and Shaq Mason. But they are having more success running to their left. They have rushed 71 times left (4-yard average), 72 times middle (2.4-yard average), and 109 times right (3.5-yard average).

The Patriots rode their offensive line and a power run game all the way to a Lombardi Trophy last season, running the ball more than 53 percent of the time in their three postseason games. This year, they are running only 40.2 percent of the time. And this is while often playing with big leads in the second half.

The offensive line’s struggles are a big reason why the Patriots are just 16th in scoring efficiency (scoring points on 37.3 percent of their drives). And surprisingly, the Patriots have kicked the fourth-most punts (48 in 110 drives).


Patriots offensive efficiency 
Stat How the Patriots perform NFL rank
3rd- and 4th-and-1 rushing conversions 66.7% (10 of 15) 20
Scoring efficiency 37.3% 16
Red Zone TD efficiency 50% (20 of 40) 21
Red Zone scoring efficiency 82.5% (33 of 40) 21
Goal-to-go TD percentage 62.2% (15 of 22) 20
Punts 48 4

Wynn can return to the lineup as soon as Week 12 against Dallas, so that should give the Patriots a boost. But they need to get more out of their current unit.

Will the Patriots bounce back against the Eagles?
Nora Princiotti and Ben Volin discuss the prospects of the Patriots after their first loss in the season against the Ravens in week 9. (Produced by Lucie McCormick for the Boston Globe)

2. Running back play

The running game’s struggles aren’t just on the offensive line. Sony Michel and James White are both averaging an abysmal 3.3 yards per carry, forcing the Patriots to turn to Brandon Bolden or Brady for several short-yardage runs.

White’s role is the passing-down back, and he usually runs only on draws and other shotgun-type plays. But the Patriots have been counting on Michel as the between-the-tackles runner, and he has struggled, unable to overcome inconsistent run blocking and the loss of Develin.

Michel has broken just two tackles all season, and he averages 1.5 yards after contact, ranked 47th out of 80 qualifying running backs. Michel has been stuffed on 11 percent of his rush attempts, which ranks 59th out of 80. And even when he does convert a short-yardage run, it isn’t by much; he has gained a first down on 7 of 9 third-and-short opportunities, but has gained a total of 13 yards on them.

No, Michel hasn’t had a ton of space to run through. But the sign of a good running back is making yards on his own, and Michel hasn’t been doing his part.


3. Defending the run

The Patriots defense leads the NFL in fewest points allowed (10.9 per game) and has been downright dominant over the first half of the season. But the run defense has been surprisingly leaky, especially the last two weeks. The Browns and Ravens exposed some holes, combining to rush for 369 yards, a 5.9-yard average, and 3 touchdown.

Overall, the Patriots are allowing 4.72 yards per carry, seventh-worst in the NFL. Nick Chubb (131 yards), Mark Ingram (115), and Frank Gore (109) went for 100 yards against them and averaged at least 6.4 yards per carry.

The Patriots have given up a surprising number of big plays: Steven Sims’s 65-yard touchdown in the Washington game, plus a 53-yarder by Ingram, a 44-yarder by Chubb, and a 41-yarder by Gore.

The Patriots aren’t doing a great job on first down, allowing 4.96 yards per carry, eighth-most in the league. And they could get in the backfield more, as they are forcing a negative run just 8.7 percent of the time, 12th-fewest.

The Patriots will now face three of the top running teams in the league — Philadelphia, Dallas, and Houston — so they’d better get their run defense fixed.

Run defense woes
Stat How the Patriots perform NFL rank
Yards per carry allowed 4.72 26
First down yards per carry allowed 4.96 25
Negative runs 8.7 percent of runs 21

4. Scoring early

This seems a little odd to say, considering that the Patriots have jumped all over their opponents. The Patriots are plus-70 in first-quarter scoring and plus-105 in the first half, both the best in the NFL. But a lot of those points have been generated by defensive scores or turnovers.


In their nine games, the Patriots scored on their first possession just three times. All three were touchdowns, which obviously is good. But they also punted five times, and had one turnover on downs. The Ravens, by contrast, have six touchdowns and two field goals on their nine opening drives.

The Patriots’ penchant for slow starts caught up to them two weeks ago in Baltimore, when the Ravens raced out to a 17-0 lead and the Patriots had three punts and just 13 total yards in their first three drives.

If the Baltimore game was an indication, the Patriots aren’t a great play-from-behind team, so they need to get on top of opponents early.

5. Red zone

Again, it seems strange to say that the No. 2 scoring team in the NFL needs to improve in the red zone. But the Patriots have had the most red zone drives in the league (40, tied with Seattle), and their conversion numbers aren’t great.

They are 21st in touchdown efficiency (50 percent, 20 of 40) and 21st in overall red zone scoring efficiency (82.5 percent, 33 of 40). Goal-to-go situations also have been a bit of a struggle, with the Patriots reaching the end zone on just 15 of 22 (68.2 percent), ranking 20th.

And Brady has thrown two interceptions in the red zone, behind only Sam Darnold (four) and Baker Mayfield (three).

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin