The Patriots offense is broken but they may have already found a way to fix it

The Patriots did what they had to on Sunday. They went into Philadelphia and escaped with a 17-10 win that kept them out in front of the AFC’s race for home-field advantage. It was, undoubtedly, a good result, but not exactly an encouraging one with the offense, which has underwhelmed all season, sputtering once again.

As has been the case all season, New England’s defense carried the team to its ninth victory on Sunday but it’s hard to envision that formula working in the postseason when the Patriots will have to take on teams like Baltimore and Kansas City, which are capable of scoring points on any team. For the first time in a long time, that’s not something we can say about the Pats offense.

Sunday’s offensive performance was particularly rough. The Patriots averaged just 4.2 yards per play, and neither either facet of the offense performed well. The run game produced a success rate of of just 33% and the pass game wasn’t much better at 37%. The lone touchdown came on a wide receiver pass by Julian Edelman.

But as bad as things were, we may look back at this win in Philly as a turning point for the offense. The Pats may not have found success but they may have found the strategic twist they needed to get the offense on track in time for the playoffs. And that’s a return to an up-tempo, spread attack that we haven’t seen from New England since the turn of the decade.

In the second half against the Eagles, Tom Brady operated out of the gun almost exclusively, and the Patriots went without a huddle on nearly half of their snaps after the halftime break. That didn’t lead to more scoring, but the Pats did move the ball more after the shift. We’ll see if that is a sign of things to come in the next few weeks, but the season-long numbers suggest it should be a permanent change as the heavy sets New England rode to a Lombardi Trophy in 2018 have lost their effectiveness in 2019.

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There are a lot of factors leading to that development. It starts with the offensive line, which was arguably the best in the league down the stretch of last season. That’s no longer the case. The line is no longer able to bully teams on the ground, and it’s leading to a lot of third-and-long plays that the line isn’t capable of blocking, which is why we saw New England call so many screen passes in those situations against the Eagles.

Compounding that issue, Brady isn’t what he used to be. Now, a washed Brady is still a top-10 quarterback in this league but I don’t know if he’s capable of putting the offense on his back as he has had to do in the past when New England’s supporting cast hasn’t been good. Brady is missing throws he typically doesn’t miss, and it shows in the numbers. After 11 weeks, the 42-year-old ranks 26th in Completion Percentage over Expectation, per Next Gen Stats, and you’ll find names like Ryan Fitzpatrick, Kyle Allen and Daniel Jones ahead of him on the list. He ranks 14th in ESPN’s QBR and 18th in adjusted net yards per attempt.

It would help if the Patriots provided Brady with a reliable target outside of Julian Edelman, who is the only receiver capable of getting open consistently it seems. That would be less of an issue if Edelman were more effective on downfield routes, but that hasn’t been the case in 2019. The slot receiver has done his work almost exclusively within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage:

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Do you know what New England could really use right now? A massive tight end capable of creating mismatches all over the field no matter how the defense tries to cover him. Unfortunately, Rob Gronkowski is too busy hawking CBD to help out. When it was suggested that the Patriots’ use of two-back sets during its title run would lead to a smashmouth revolution throughout the NFL, I think we were all underselling how integral Gronk was to that set-up. Without him, New England can no longer spread things out and create mismatches they can exploit for chunk plays — the strategy it used on the game-winning drive in Super Bowl 53. Gronkowski was the guy they used to do it, and he’s no longer here.

It’s not just that Patriots can’t do it; they’re not even really trying, either. In 2017 and 2018, Brady averaged 60 attempts from spread-out, 21-personnel sets. Heading into the Eagles game, he had attempted only 15 in 2019, per Sports Info Solutions. And it’s pretty obvious why Josh McDaniels has cutback on those passing plays when you look at the declining production of them…

The dip in production really started last season when Gronkowski was in and out of the lineup with various injuries. He started only 11 games and the success rate of those plays dropped to 50%. It’s dropped even further without Gronk on the roster.

Gronkowski was the key to the Patriots’ use of 21 personnel. Now that he’s gone, the Patriots need an identity change. That’s never been a problem in the past but with a lack of star talent on offense, there is no obvious solution. In the offseason, I suggested that New England could play more lineups that don’t feature a tight end, and that has happened, with its usage of 10- and 20-personnel jumping up by about 12% combined. The Pats may have to push things even further if this season is going to end with a seventh Super Bowl win.

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Brady has been at his best with four receivers on the field. In those sets, he averaging 0.26 EPA on 37 attempts. That’s a small sample size (and continued success isn’t guaranteed) but it sure beats what the passing game has produced with two backs on the field. On 107 attempts from two-back sets, Brady is averaging -0.07 EPA this season.

The running game should also get a boost with a more spread-out approach. As we’ve seen in Arizona this season — and, really, across the league — lighter run boxes can help make up for offensive line deficiencies in the run game. With only two rushing attempts this season, the Patriots haven’t even attempted to run out of those four-receiver looks. If New England, which ranks 19th in run DVOA, wants any semblance of a ground game, that might be the only way to go about getting one.

Things don’t look great right now, but it would be foolish to bet against Belichick, Brady and McDaniels figuring things out. They always do. If there is an answer to the Patriots’ offensive problems, those guys will find it … eventually. Whether it’s now or in January, and adjustment will be made. We may have already seen the beginning stages of one on Sunday.

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