Analysis

Patriots struggling more than usual with miscues early in 2021

Costly turnovers, like Damien Harris's two crucial fumbles, and uncharacteristic penalties have hurt the Patriots early in the 2021 season.

Patriots Bill Belichick
Houston Texans cornerback Terrance Mitchell celebrates after forcing a fumble by New England Patriots' Damien Harris at the goal line. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
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The Patriots have long been touted as a team that knows its assignments, does its job, and forces others to make mistakes without beating themselves in the process.

So far, the 2021 Patriots haven’t lived up to that billing.

Though Bill Belichick’s squad wasn’t necessarily expected to be 5-0 to start the season, the 2-3 start feels somewhat more disappointing than last year’s because of how it’s happened.

The Patriots’ Week 1 loss was sealed by a red-zone fumble from running back Damien Harris. In Week 3, the Patriots looked unprepared and sloppy. Turnovers played a role in the team’s big Week 4 loss to Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

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That’s not something you’re used to seeing: a Patriots team that gives away games.

New England’s 9 turnovers given up to start the season (5 interceptions, 4 lost fumbles) put them in a tie with the Jets for second-worst in the league, ahead of just the Kansas City Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars (11 giveaways). None of those teams has better than a 2-3 record.

To put that in perspective, this year’s offense is already almost halfway to the number of turnovers committed by the 2020 Patriots offensive unit (19), which was middle-of-the-pack among NFL teams.

In 2019 — Tom Brady’s last year under center in New England — the offense only gave up the ball 15 times all season.

Though no one expects the Patriots’ offense to be as immediately prolific under Mac Jones as it was with Brady, New England at least had to be hoping for better ball security than that.

Unfortunately, as running backs coach Ivan Fears lamented on Tuesday, this is the Patriots’ reputation at the moment.

What’s more, the team has also struggled in another key category: penalties.

New England has committed 31 penalties for 272 yards through five games, giving up 11 first downs in the process, according to Pro Football Reference. A few of them, like Hunter Henry’s false start before Nick Folk’s missed field goal on the Patriots’ final drive against the Bucs, have hurt their chances of winning games.

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While that’s not particularly egregious as far as the rest of the NFL is concerned — the Patriots are tied for 10th in penalties committed with five other teams, and Philadelphia leads the pack with 50 penalties against them — it’s not up to the team’s own standards.

Last year’s 7-9 Patriots squad committed just 62 penalties all season. Again, the 2021 squad is already halfway to reaching that total just over a quarter into the season. The year before that, New England had 94 penalties called against it over a full season.

One could certainly argue the Patriots could be 4-1 if not for a few costly mistakes or decisions against the Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But there’s also that saying Bill Parcells often used to consider: “You are what your record says you are.”

Right now, sitting at 2-3, the Patriots aren’t a great team. Unlike last year, though, the issue isn’t so much a significant talent gap between New England and its opponents. It’s more about the little things that seemingly never cost them games before: mental lapses, penalties, and giving away the football.

With 12 games left, there’s still time to correct those problems before the season gets too far out of reach. And the Patriots need to if they have any hopes of being competitive for a playoff spot this year.

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