Patriots

Blame the running game for the Patriots’ recent offensive struggles

There's a reason Tom Brady is frustrated, and it isn't just his performance or that of the passing game.

Patriots running back Sony Michel hits the dirt as does the ball as he couldn't make the catch on a pass from Tom Brady (not pictured).

COMMENTARY

Tom Brady brought all those hypercritical eyes upon himself. While his coach was calling it “fun” and his teammates were characterizing a 17-10 felling of Philadelphia as a good, gritty road win, the quarterback moped his way through a pouty post-game press conference with a puss on his face.

A player whose legacy is first and foremost defined by winning certainly didn’t put forth the demeanor of a guy whose team had just moved to 9-1. Instead, he put in plain sight his frustrations with the failures of the Patriots’ offense — and prompted wider scrutiny of his own performance, which thrust him into Week 12 with the NFL’s 20th-best passer rating and on pace to throw fewer touchdown passes than he has in 13 years. Brady’s own behavior brought those eyeballs upon evidence that, finally, his play is starting to slide at age 42.

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But those eyes are looking in the wrong place if they’re seeking to determine what’s wrong with the Patriots offense.

It’s more recent that the stories are being written, and the victory laps are being basked in by the hot-takers who have been predicting (… and predicting … and predicting) Brady’s demise for years. Though the Pats have been prepared for this inevitability for about a year or so. Look at the way they won Super Bowl LII. Look at the noncommittal way they approached contract negotiations with the QB last summer. Look at the way they’ve built the team around him.

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Perhaps with that Lombardi-lifting victory over the Rams as a blueprint, Bill Belichick built his 20th Patriots team as one that could fall back on Brady when it needed to, but was primarily to be driven to a seventh title by its defense and running game. But while the defense has absolutely fulfilled that promise, the running game has fallen flat on its facemask. And the consequences have careened throughout the entire offensive operation.

Brady’s passing attack is plenty capable of being a complementary contributor. He’s still good enough. So are his weapons. The problem is that they’ve got nothing to complement, because opposing defenses can too readily disregard the running game as a threat.

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Pro Football Reference attempts to quantify the value of a running game by calculating the expected points it contributes. The Patriots are scored at -44.38 for the season, barely outpacing the Steelers for the worst in football. A more traditional metric is yards per rushing attempt, and the Pats are second-worst there, too, with the only the Dolphins gaining fewer than New England’s clip of 3.3 per haul.

Sony Michel shoulders some of the blame, given that he’s had only game this season in which he’s carried the ball at least five times and averaged four yards per tote. He’s broken a tackle once every 22 carries — only seven all season — and he’s gaining just 1.4 yards per carry after first contact. Only three qualifying rushers go down faster, and one of them is rookie quarterback Kyler Murray.

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That said, Michel is also in the league’s bottom third in yards before contact (1.9 per), which indictment of how well New England has blocked for its backs. It also speaks to the way the incremental losses incurred by the rushing attack have accumulated.

After last season, when the running game was a strength late, tackle Trent Brown left to take a massive free-agent contract from Oakland. Last month, one analysis said he was playing as the best right tackle in the league.

Then, Rob Gronkowski retired. His loss is most often lamented because he was such a factor in the passing game, but his blocking was a huge part of the run game, too. When he retired he was always going to be tough to replace, but he informed the Pats so late they had little time to react by bringing in a veteran. They’d also already let Dwayne Allen, a good blocker, go to Miami after playing about a third of the team’s snaps a season ago.

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Meanwhile, Brown’s replacement, first-round tackle Isaiah Wynn, missed most of the offseason, then returned for five quarters before getting hurt again. (He’s expected to be back on the field this weekend.) Shortly before the opener, center David Andrews was lost for the year because of blood clots. And then fullback James Develin went down with a neck injury in Week 2.

So, it’s Michel who gets the credit or blame because the ball is in his hands. But Brown, Gronkowski, Allen, Andrews, and Develin were all major parts of New England’s ground game. Without them, it’s a different operation. Add to that fact the Wynn injury, plus temporary injuries to Marcus Cannon and Shaq Mason on the right side of the line, and at best it should be expected that the group is a work in progress.

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At worst, it’s — well, it’s that what we’ve seen so far is the reality of what they are.

And what we’ve seen so far is a disaster. They struggle to convert in short yardage situations, do no favors to the Pats’ efficiency on early downs or in the red zone, and heap pressure on Brady and his pass catchers.

Opponents can key on the predictability of the Pats’ personnel — James White is far more likely to be a receiver, while Michel is almost exclusively a runner — and the running game isn’t dangerous enough that opposing defenses need to overload against it. That’s not how it’s supposed to be set up. At the very least, the running game is good enough to be respected, and from there Brady can take advantage with his savvy. Diagnose heavy fronts at the line, and adjust based on weaknesses in coverage. Identify the soft spots and exploitable matchups. Utilize play-action fakes and mitigate some of the pressure and blitzes with sheer balance.

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Instead, it’s all too easy for the defense to focus everything on Brady and a receiving corps that isn’t built to withstand being the focal point of a championship run. And it’s not easy to envision the running game improving enough in the near term to shift them away from that responsibility. This week last year the Pats ran for 215 yards coming off their bye, and gained at least 131 rushing yards in six of their last nine games. They’ve yet to run for that many in a single game this season.

So, while there’s a school of thought that Brady’s frustration has become visible because it seems as though his importance to the team has been minimized en route to 9-1 — the reality is that in some ways Brady is as important as ever. It’s not supposed to be like that. And, at 42, he’s not entirely equipped with the pieces to take on that challenge.

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But don’t blame him for that. Don’t blame his coach or his receivers, either.

Blame the running game that Belichick handed the offense off to — and hasn’t been able to carry the load.

Video: Is Tom Brady right to be upset?

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