The Patriots are synonymous with winning, yet the most glass-half-full assessment of New England’s season has more to do with how they’ve lost games: first, on the goal line in the final seconds against the Seahawks and MVP front-runner Russell Wilson; then, against the Chiefs in Kansas City after a same-day flight (requiring two planes) and with a backup quarterback; and most recently, 18-12 against the Broncos after two weeks of missed practices and coronavirus stress, and with a makeshift offensive line.
Even though those three losses give the Patriots a losing record this late in the season (the first time since 2002), they all seem explainable. And if they’re explainable, they’re fixable, especially with Bill Belichick in charge, right? Belichick is known for running a well-prepared team but, for the past two weeks, when the Patriots facility has been mostly closed after several positive coronavirus tests, they were stuck preparing for two AFC opponents primarily on Zoom.
“The more we can get out there and practice and improve our timing, our execution, our anticipation, our awareness, our communication, the more I think those things will help us,” Belichick said. “We’re going to do everything we can to maximize that and I think that will definitely help our individual performances and it will also help our unit performances the more we can do that. Hopefully, we’ll get a full dose of it this week.”
The Patriots will welcome a full week of practice ahead of Sunday’s game against the 49ers, but New England’s problems can’t be explained away entirely by a lack of preparation. Cam Newton’s arrival solved an immediate need at quarterback after Tom Brady’s departure, but Newton’s absence in two of the Patriots’ losses and his uneven performance on Sunday show how depleted some of the team’s offensive skill positions have become. And those problems can’t be attributed to the coronavirus or schedule changes—they’ve been years in the making.
The biggest is the passing game. The Patriots’ top three receivers—Damiere Byrd, N’Keal Harry, and Julian Edelman—were targeted 12 times and combined to catch five passes for 46 yards. The Broncos frequently blitzed, taking advantage of the makeshift offensive line and the fact that they didn’t need to worry about Newton hurting them downfield.
Edelman, normally the top receiver by a long stretch, is listed on the injury report as having a knee injury. Really, it’s an everything injury, which has been the case for Edelman for much of the past two seasons. On Sunday, he completed as many passes (two) as he caught. Without a full-strength Edelman, Newton is left with a collection of decent second and third receiving options like Byrd, who has never had more than 359 yards in a season but leads the Patriots receivers in snaps so far this year. Chances taken on Antonio Brown, Josh Gordon, and Mohamed Sanu, each for different reasons, have not worked out well. Harry, the only receiver Belichick has taken in the first round, wasn’t targeted Sunday and may be in danger of losing snaps to a practice squad player named Isaiah Zuber. Asked about Harry on Wednesday, Belichick deflected and took 132 words to even mention him.
“Yeah, well, as a team, we need more time on the practice field than we’ve had recently, so hopefully we’ll start getting that this week and that will be good for all of us. I think we all need to work on fundamentals and awareness and anticipation and things like that. That’s true of every position, but obviously in the passing game—quarterbacks, receivers, backs, tight ends—there’s a lot of that, and we need it on defense as well and defensive recognition,” Belichick said. “So, that’s something that we’re, I would say, all maybe not starting all over, but we need a lot of work on that. So, I think we’ve made some gains, but we need to do more on the field and hopefully we’ll be able to do that this week. So, that’s N’Keal and that’s everybody.”
According to PFF, only four teams see fewer two-high safety coverages than the Patriots’ offense. Defenses are deploying their resources to stop the run, assuming the Patriots won’t beat them through the air. Mostly, they’ve been right. New England has just one game in which they’ve thrown for over 165 yards. Against those single-high safety looks, they rank 30th in the NFL in expected points added per pass attempt.
Some of the Patriots’ other issues against the Broncos are not major causes for concern. This Patriots team is built to run the ball, or use the threat of the run to help the passing game, and their running backs gained 41 yards on 15 carries Sunday. Once right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor went down in the first half, not one offensive lineman played the full game in his intended position. Since 2018, New England has turned to the ground game when the offense is in trouble; with better health up front, it should right itself. According to Pro Football Focus’s Seth Galina, the Patriots are still third in the NFL in expected points added per rushing attempt. This part of New England’s offense is still healthy.
On Sunday, the Patriots play the 49ers and Jimmy Garoppolo, the player New England traded in October 2017—a trade that marked the beginning of the end of the Tom Brady–era Patriots. In the three years since Garoppolo’s departure, the Patriots have both extended their dynasty by adding another Super Bowl win and hamstrung themselves for the future through an inability to find talent at offensive skill positions.
San Francisco sent New England a second-round pick in the 2018 draft in exchange for Garoppolo. Purposeful or not, Belichick has made a series of trades with that pick, which obscures the return on the deal. As it stands now, the Patriots have spun that pick into linebacker Christian Sam, defensive back Joejuan Williams, running back Damien Harris, offensive tackle Yodny Cajuste, quarterback Jarrett Stidham, offensive tackle Justin Herron, and part of what it took to trade up and get tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene in the third round of this past draft.
Though some of those moves required packaging parts of the Garoppolo return with other picks, it’s impressive in terms of the sheer number of darts the Patriots have thrown at the board stemming from that one decision. The problem is, few of them have hit. Of all those players, Herron has gotten the most time, playing 44 percent of New England’s offensive snaps so far this season. Asiasi and Keene, blocked on the depth chart by 2018 seventh-round pick Ryan Izzo, play a position that has been important to the Patriots offense for years yet one they haven’t succeeded in finding contributors to since they drafted Rob Gronkowski. Neither Asiasi nor Keene has a catch so far this season. In the latest round of pass catcher envy the Patriots are playing most weeks, they’ll face All-Pro tight end George Kittle on Sunday. The 49ers found Kittle in the fifth round of the 2017 draft.
The Patriots are 2-3 and two games behind the Bills in the AFC East. Since October 27, 2019, when New England was 8-0, the Patriots have gone 6-8, including this year’s start. The most important outcome for the Patriots this year is how Newton plays the remainder of the season; if Newton can be a successful quarterback for New England beyond this season, the team will have time to work on its other problems on offense. The Patriots have a 20-year track record of being the team most trustworthy to fix its own problems effectively. But their issues have been a long time in the making, and there is no quick fix available.