FOXBOROUGH — Teams don’t necessarily have to run the ball well to win games in the NFL.
The Patriots won four of their Super Bowls with a rushing attack that averaged fewer than 4.0 yards per carry (2001, 2003, 2014, and 2016). Two of their best rushing seasons under Bill Belichick were also two of their worst offensively (2008 and 2013).
And the research is pretty well established that having an effective passing game is the best path to success; you throw the ball to score, and run the ball to close out games.
But this Patriots team needs to run the ball effectively to win. They don’t have the firepower at wide receiver or tight end to light up the scoreboard by throwing 40 times per game. They need to have a balanced attack, and they need to be able to play keep-away from the opponent.
And, boy, are they struggling to run the ball. They enter Sunday’s showdown with the Chiefs ranked in the bottom third of the NFL in several key rushing categories.
Belichick’s terse, nonspecific answers Wednesday pretty much said it all about how he feels about the state of the Patriots’ run game.
“I think I said after the [Texans] game that we need to be better at everything,” Belichick said. “We’re just working on Kansas City, not worried about the yearly review. Just working on Kansas City.”
It can’t be a coincidence that seven of the top eight rushing teams in the NFL are currently playoff qualifiers: Ravens, 49ers, Seahawks, Bills, Vikings, Texans, and Cowboys (only the Colts, ranked fourth, are on the outside).
And it can’t be a coincidence that the Patriots had a strong running game last year and won a Super Bowl, while this year the offense is floundering and the run game is one of the worst in the NFL.
Let’s take a look at a few key rushing statistics, and how the Patriots ranked in 2018 compared with 2019:
■ Yards per game: 127.3 last year (fifth-best in the NFL), 96.3 this year (21st).
■ Yards per attempt: 4.3 last year (20th), 3.5 this year (29th).
■ Yards per attempt on first down: 4.4 last year (16th), 3.7 this year (28th).
■ Rush attempts as percentage of the offense: 44.5 percent last year (eighth), 39.2 percent this year (18th).
■ Negative runs: Fewest in the NFL last year, 10th-most this year.
The takeaway is that while the Patriots weren’t always the most efficient running team last year, they still were able to wear teams down with the run. It put them in more manageable distances on second and third downs, and it made them more balanced, which opened up the passing attack, especially the play-action game. For the season, the Patriots were “stuffed” on just 4.8 percent of their runs, the best mark ever under Belichick.
This year is markedly different. The Patriots are getting caught behind the chains more often, and the offense is more one-dimensional. Tom Brady is averaging 40.5 pass attempts per game, the most in his career — probably not what you want out of your 42-year-old quarterback.
“I certainly am not opposed to being more run than pass or more pass than run if it’s going to be successful for our team,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said this week. “I’ve got to do a better job at trying to find the right answers each week and put our guys in the right position and hope that we can go out there and execute well and get it in the end zone each time we’re down there.”
Their 3.5 yards per carry rank 17th among Belichick’s 20 seasons, and their 96.3 yards per game are 16th. This is their worst rushing season in both areas since 2005, a year they lost in the divisional round of the playoffs. They have gotten stuffed on 9.8 percent of runs, the second-worst performance under Belichick.
Sony Michel (3.5 yards per attempt) can’t get much going, nor can James White (3.9). Some of it is on them for not being able to create yards on their own. But health and continuity appear to be big factors. The offensive line has been wildly inconsistent, with starters missing at center and left tackle. They also lost fullback James Develin and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen, all excellent blockers, from last year’s team.
McDaniels knows that for the Patriots to have a chance at their seventh Lombardi Trophy, they have to run the ball better in December and January, when weather plays a factor. The Patriots run game was a big reason they steamrolled through the playoffs last year. They rushed 34 times for 155 yards against the Chargers, 48 times for 176 yards against the Chiefs, and 32 times for 154 yards in the Super Bowl win over the Rams.
“We work really hard each week on that area of our team because we know how important it is, especially here in New England,” McDaniels said. “As we get closer to the end of the year and we’re playing in December, weather is going to be a factor and those types of things.”
There is a tiny silver lining at least: The Patriots have rushed for 101 and 145 yards the past two weeks, after not cracking 80 in any of their previous four games. They averaged 5.0 yards per carry against Houston, including a 32-yard run by White and a 17-yarder by Michel.
These performances coincide with left tackle Isaiah Wynn returning from injury.
“Hopefully our best football in every phase is in front of us,” said McDaniels, “but I feel like we’ve made some progress in the running game, and we need to continue to do that as we head into the last four games of our season.”
It may be the difference between a seventh Lombardi Trophy and an early playoff exit.