Patriots

Is ‘slow’ Patriots offense gearing up for another year of bully ball in 2021?

The Patriots come into this year ranked among the slowest offenses in the NFL but might still be better than they were in 2020 with a revamped offensive depth chart.

Damien Harris Patriots
Damien Harris runs through Los Angeles Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey last season. Jae C. Hong/AP
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If you were looking for a word to describe the 2021 Patriots offense, “explosive” almost certainly wasn’t on the tip of your tongue. Nor should it have been.

New England’s first post-Tom Brady season didn’t go smoothly on the offensive side of the ball especially, with significant blame being laid at the foot of his successor Cam Newton.

In 2020, the Patriots ranked 26th in the league with 51 “explosive” plays (gains of 20 or more yards). The most “explosive” team in the league — the Kansas City Chiefs — had 79 such plays of 20+ yards. Brady’s Buccaneers (twist the knife in further, why don’t you?!) were right behind the Chiefs with 76.

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The passing game struggled in particular, with New England’s 38 passing plays of 20 or more yards tying with the Baltimore Ravens for the NFL’s third-lowest total.

For perspective, the 2019 Patriots were in the top 10 both in total explosive plays and explosive pass plays with Brady at the helm.

To be fair to Newton, though, it’s hard to be explosive when you receive virtually no production from your tight ends and your best two wide receivers are Jakobi Meyers and Damiere Byrd.

That’s ostensibly why the Patriots spent big money to add tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, as well as major speed threat Nelson Agholor, to the offense this offseason: give the quarterback more weapons with which to succeed.

But there may still be a key ingredient lacking from the current recipe the Patriots are brewing up for the 2021 offense: raw speed.

“The Patriots, you could argue, are the slowest team in the NFL when it comes to their offensive personnel,” NBC Sports Boston reporter Phil Perry told colleague Tom Curran on the Patriots Talk Podcast last week.

Earlier this month, Perry found New England’s projected “11” personnel group (one running back, tight end, three receivers) ranks dead last in the NFL with an average offensive skill position 40-time of 4.584.

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The team also ranked second-to-last in this department in 2020 with an even slower average time (4.60 seconds) for the same personnel group.

Speed obviously isn’t everything in route-running, and there are many factors that go into how much separation a receiver can get on each play. But what’s to say the pure lack of threatening speed — outside of Agholor — won’t be just as big an issue this year as it was in 2020?

That’s where the Patriots might well be looking to double down on the formula that kept them in many a game last year: run the ball. A lot.

“They have two offensive linemen that are going to combine for over 700 pounds in Trent Brown and Michael Onwenu. They’ve got a 230-pound running back that they just [drafted] to go along with a hard runner in Damien Harris. They have a tank at quarterback [Newton] that they might use. I just think they’re more interested in playing bully ball than they are in playing fast,” Perry said on the podcast.

If there’s one thing the Patriots offense did well in 2020, it was pounding the rock.

The team racked up the fourth-most rushing yards in the NFL last season and also tied for sixth in runs longer than 20 yards with the Denver Broncos (13). Three of those runs came from Newton.

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The team’s emphasis on the run game might also be seen in the aforementioned drafting of fourth-round running back Rhamondre Stevenson as well as the re-signing of center David Andrews and the massive Brown at tackle.

A run-heavy offense, as well as questions about the receivers’ abilities to separate from defenders, could also raise further questions about when rookie Mac Jones will take over as the starting quarterback, according to Perry.

“Is this a good situation for somebody like Mac Jones who’s used to working with fast receivers, who’s used to seeing his guys get open? These guys are probably not going to be great at getting open,” he said.

Of course, that situation didn’t help Newton last year either as the Patriots finished with the third-lowest passing yard total in the league. But as Perry also notes, Henry, Smith, and Agholor all provide run-after-catch abilities no one on the roster possessed in 2020.

As such, it seems New England hopes that sticking to a physical, downhill running game while getting better, if not necessarily much faster, at its skill positions can be enough to turn the offense around in 2021.

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