FOXBOROUGH — Any offense playing the Bills this season is already in a bad situation. This Saturday, the Patriots need to make sure theirs doesn’t go from bad to worse when they have the ball.
The Patriots hope enough goes well in practice this week that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will have a long list of plays on his call sheet that he and the players like for first downs. Early downs have not been kind to the Patriots this season.
The Patriots gain an average of 5.3 yards per play on first down, 24th in the NFL. Their worst performance of the season came in the first matchup with the Bills, in which the Patriots gained 2.9 yards per play on first down. They got away with it in Week 4 thanks to a blocked punt-turned-touchdown and a four-interception meltdown by the Bills on offense.
“This is the best defense that we play, and the challenge is incredible,” said McDaniels.
The Patriots’ offense is struggling and it’s hard to identify a clear identity based on something the group does well. It’s more about what they don’t do poorly. To put it differently, what the Patriots’ offense is best at right now is not screwing up too badly.
They have lost only 12 turnovers, third-best in the NFL. Despite shoddy offensive line play, Tom Brady has been sacked on only 4.62 percent of his dropbacks, fifth-best in the league.
This is not enough to power a team, but it’s significant. One of the greatest strengths of this offense is that they avoid negative, what-a-disaster plays. The Patriots will go up against a defense that considers forcing those types of plays to be a strength of its own.
“They don’t give up big plays and they capitalize on your mistakes,” said Patriots running back James White. “It will be important for us to protect the football, take what they give us and we’ll get our opportunities to make plays down the field — got to capitalize on those, too. It will be a great challenge, I think protecting the football will be a huge thing for us.”
Staying ahead in the down-and-distance is connected to protecting the football and avoiding getting plays blown up, because the third-and-long situations are where the Bills can pin their ears back. The Buffalo blitz is well disguised and can come from anywhere thanks to power on the defensive line and athleticism at linebacker and safety.
“They’re not going to blitz you a ton, but when they do, it’s pretty effective,” White said.
“They try and confuse you. Whatever they’ve been doing, it’s been working for them, and like I said, it will be a great challenge for us.”
Unsurprisingly, the running game has been part of the problem on early downs this season. The Patriots have gained 3.84 yards per rushing attempt on first downs, 26th in the NFL. Sony Michel, who has 131 of the team’s 225 first-down rushing attempts, is averaging 3.76 yards per attempt on such carries.
There were some positive signs against the Bengals last Sunday, when the Patriots averaged 5.5 yards per carry. It would be unreasonable to expect the same production against the Bills who, if you haven’t heard, are much better defensively.
But are enough productive runs, and more consistent first-down production in general, too much to ask? Tom Brady certainly doesn’t have a bunch of third-and-longs on his Christmas list this year.