The issues that have plagued the Patriots offense all season long presented themselves again in plain sight in Sunday’s 17-10 win over the Eagles. The Patriots once again struggled to run the ball, protect Tom Brady, create separation in the passing game, and punch the ball into the end zone.
I watched the All-22 tape with the question in mind: “What’s wrong with Tom Brady and the offense?”
While they are dealing with many different issues, most are connected by a common thread: continuity, or a lack thereof. The Patriots just look like a team that hasn’t practiced much together.
“As crazy as it sounds, we’re still kind of a relatively new . . . getting familiar with each other on offense,” Brady told WEEI on Monday.
The Patriots always have roster churn, but year after year, Brady could rely on Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, James Develin, and most of his offensive linemen returning.
Sunday, when Brady looked up and down the line of scrimmage, he saw a receiver who has been here four weeks (Mohamed Sanu), a tight end playing in only his fifth game with the Patriots (Matt LaCosse), another tight end who signed as a free agent over the summer and missed the first four games with a suspension (Ben Watson), a left tackle who was signed off the street in Week 2 (Marshall Newhouse), a center who was a backup for his first three seasons (Ted Karras), and two rookie receivers, one of whom was playing in his first NFL game (N’Keal Harry, Jakobi Meyers).
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Brady clearly aren’t comfortable with the personnel. Guys are missing assignments or running the wrong routes. And the players on the field just aren’t as talented as ones they have had in the past.
Let’s take a look at how a lack of continuity affected the offense against Philadelphia:
■ The Patriots at times had uncharacteristically poor execution. The first drive ended with a missed screen pass to Edelman, who couldn’t handle Brady’s throw. Edelman doesn’t usually run through the middle of a busy formation and catch a screen pass like a running back, and this play failed because Edelman tripped over Joe Thuney’s feet and couldn’t recover in time. Had Edelman caught it, he had a ton of room to run.
The Patriots’ second drive was derailed by a 5-yard loss by Sony Michel on second down. Easy to blame the running back or the offensive line, right? But the real culprit appeared to be Harry, who appeared to block the wrong defender, taking out Newhouse’s man instead. This left Newhouse standing around with no one to block, and allowed linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill to scream into the backfield untouched.
We often forget that there is a lot more to playing wide receiver than just catching the ball, and Harry probably has a lot of catching up to do. Later in the game, Meyers also looked lost on a Rex Burkhead run that got stuffed in the backfield.
■ Edelman, too, was unusually sloppy. In addition to tripping over Thuney’s feet, Edelman got alligator arms on a pass down the seams that could have been a big gain, and had a bad drop in the end zone. The screen pass and alligator arm plays were back-to-back and killed the first drive.
■ The Patriots had so little faith in their ability to execute that McDaniels had to turn to gimmick plays on several key downs. The Patriots threw a screen pass instead of letting Brady throw downfield on their first two third-down opportunities, on third and 7 and third and 12 (neither succeeded).
They called a flea-flicker in the second quarter when Burkhead did a throwback to Brady, who then nearly threw an interception when he fired it to Phillip Dorsett in double coverage.
The Patriots had to turn to the no-huddle offense in the third quarter just to get the ball moving, using it 13 times (compared with once in the first half). And the Patriots’ touchdown came on a trick play — a double pass from Edelman to Dorsett, on which the Eagles’ free safety was a spectator and just watched the play unfold.
■ Most notably, McDaniels had so little faith in the passing game that he called a bevy of screen passes — eight total. The first play of the game was a screen pass to Michel for 10 yards. Three times on third down the Patriots called a screen pass, converting none and gaining a total of 5 yards.
But Watson had a nice 11-yard gain on a screen pass in the second half, and the play of the game was Burkhead’s 30-yard gain on a screen in the third quarter. The play was a bit lucky, though, as Burkhead broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage, then scampered the rest of the way.
Think about this: the Patriots’ only touchdown drive of the game came when they caught the Eagles off-guard with no-huddle, then got lucky on a 30-yard screen, then needed a trick play to get the ball into the end zone. This is not a sustainable strategy.
■ The Eagles clearly didn’t respect the Patriots’ offensive personnel. Throughout the game they brought eight defenders in the box to stop the run and played press-man coverage on the outside, basically begging the Patriots to beat them deep.
And the Patriots couldn’t, as Brady threw deep pass after deep pass that fell harmlessly to the turf. On one deep pass, Meyers ran to the middle of the field, directly into the deep safety, instead of toward the wide-open corner, where Brady threw the ball.
The Patriots ask a lot of their receivers, and Brady clearly doesn’t have confidence in all of the newbies.
■ The offensive line certainly has its issues. Newhouse, who may finally head back to the bench this week with Isaiah Wynn returning from injured reserve, couldn’t handle the speed of Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett off the edge. On one play in the second quarter, Barnett raced right around Newhouse and body-slammed Brady a split second after the quarterback got rid of the ball. Barnett again raced right around Newhouse in the second half to stuff James White in the backfield.
The Patriots’ offensive linemen also struggled with some of the Eagles’ twists and zone blitzes up front, as on Nathan Gerry’s sack in the third quarter, when he raced in unblocked.
McDaniels clearly had no confidence in the run blocking. When the Patriots got to first and goal from the 4 in the second quarter, the Patriots went pass, pass, pass, with each falling incomplete. And there was absolutely no chance of the Patriots picking up a first down at the end of the game, when the Eagles knew they were going to run.
■ But it’s not fair to blame all of the issues on the offensive line. Football is all interconnected, and the pass protection was not helped by the receivers. The Eagles double-covered Edelman all game long — and on just about every third down — and none of the other receivers could get open.
And when the Eagles didn’t double Edelman, they just dropped a safety to patrol the middle of the field, which takes out the crossers that Edelman and other receivers like to run.
Brady actually had plenty of time on several of his throws, but all the Eagles had to do was take out Edelman, and Brady couldn’t find anyone else. Sanu rolling his ankle in the second half certainly didn’t help.
■ And so you have sloppy execution, and inconsistent offensive line play, and receivers who couldn’t get open, and it affected Brady, too. On third and goal late in the second quarter, Brady had a clean pocket, and had time to step up, create space, and wait for a receiver to get open. Instead, he did a quick half-step and rushed a throw to White out in the flat that was way off target, and wasn’t going to get in the end zone anyway.
Brady also had a rough day against the blitz, completing just 2 of 7 passes for 24 yards. Edelman caught both and converted them for first downs, and also drew a pass interference penalty against the blitz. But otherwise the Patriots offense stalled when the Eagles brought extra pressure.
Some of the Patriots’ problems are fixable, such as players missing their blocking assignments or tripping over feet. Some are not; these are the receivers and linemen that the Patriots have to deal with this season. No magic solution will drop out of the sky (unless it’s, ahem, a certain former Steelers receiver).
Mostly, the Patriots just look like a team that needs to put in more time on the practice field.