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Dividing the Patriots' season into 3 mediocre sections

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Right now, this is a team without an identity.

NFL: New England Patriots at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots are the 15th ranked team by DVOA, dead last in defensive DVOA.

The Patriots are giving up 440 yards/game, most in the league by 30 yards.

Opposing quarterbacks have a 14:5 TD:INT ratio on a 66% completion ratio. They are on pace for 5,411 yards, which would be 3rd all-time, and more than Tom Brady has ever had in a season.

The Patriots are 1-2 at home.

The Patriots are 11th in the NFL in point differential at +13

They’re a team with a Pythagorean Theorem win expectancy of ~3.2 wins. This team has actually been pretty lucky.

The Patriots are 4-2, .5 games out of a tie for the #1 seed, clear 1st in the AFC East, and they win tiebreakers over every team in their division.

As one might surmise, the 2017 Patriots make absolutely no sense. They are currently a very mediocre team based on their results on the field, but they have remained at their perennial spot on top of the AFC East, holding off their competition who have been surprisingly good, with no teams in the division below .500

Looking back on the year so far, the Patriots’ season can be split up into three distinct 2 game samples, none of them particularly impressive. If you took the jerseys off and just watched the film from the games, I might legitimately believe that I was watching 3 different teams. As a squad that’s coached by Bill Belichick, who emphasizes discipline and order, I have never seen a more schizophrenic Patriots team. What’s also worth mentioning is that this was supposedly the “weak” half of the Patriots schedule. They face a very difficult road after their week 9 bye: @Denver, @Mexican Raiders, @ Steelers, and 5 (!) division games.

Week 1 and 2: Offense rolls, defense can’t stop chunk plays

The Patriots laid a real dud Week 1 against the Chiefs. Giving up 2 touchdown passes of 75+ yards is unlike anything we’ve seen out of this team, and they also gave up 185 rushing yards. And against the Saints, they cut down on those big plays, but there was still little resistance against Drew Brees. All of the Saints’ scoring drives were under 4 minutes, they forced no turnovers, and the Pats gave up 429 total yards.

What really stood out about the Patriots defense the first couple weeks was their lack of talent. I think that I stand for everyone when I say that the Patriots defense the first couple weeks looked like perhaps the worst defense of all time if it was extrapolated to a full season. Kyle Van Noy was (and still is) a disaster, Devin McCourty took a step back, Hightower had his annual knee injury, and the cornerbacks forgot how to cover.

Kareem Hunt vs Cassius Marsh in man coverage is obviously a mismatch but what the hell is Kyle Van Noy doing? He’s playing some kind of psuedo-Tampa 2 zone but he covers no one on this play. Instead of helping Marsh with Hunt (and he’s turned in that direction to start) he legit turns into a zone where there’s no Kansas City player for 30 yards. Bananas.

The bright side was the offense still looked great. Despite some struggles against a good Kansas City defense, the Patriots still averaged 31.5 points per game with a healthy Rob Gronkowski back on the field. For the most part, the offensive line did an excellent job blocking for Brady.

Week 3 and 4: More shootouts and miscommunications against the mobile QBs

Weeks 3 and 4 were more of the same offensively. The Patriots averaged 33 points per game and Brady threw 7 touchdowns without an interception. However, the offensive line seemed to forget how to block. They gave up 16 hits and 8 sacks over these 2 games, leading to a Tom Brady left shoulder injury that was worth monitoring. And again, the defense struggled... but in a vastly different way. Instead of looking untalented, they straight up couldn’t match up correctly before the snap. Even on good defensive plays, like the Malcolm Butler interception against Cam Newton, the defense left a guy (#17) wide open because of miscommunication pre-snap.

h/t Mike Reiss

I honestly can’t tell you what the Patriots were trying to do against Watson and Newton. They have historically done an excellent job against mobile quarterbacks and they came up empty on defense. On those two weeks, it seemed like every time a pass rusher was close or made contact with the quarterback, he escaped and threw for a big gain or the defender simply whiffed.

Week 5 and 6: Improved defense but a suddenly weak offense

The Patriots had back to back road games, and they escaped both with narrow victories. They didn’t cover the spread in either game. This is largely because of a failure on the offense, which has disappeared the last 2 weeks. After just 1 turnover over the season’s first quarter, they have had 4 over the last 2 games. And perhaps more troubling, they can’t sustain drives in the 4th quarter. Over the last 2 games, the Patriots have a total of 3 points and 42 4th quarter yards, all in the Tampa Bay game. 3 3 and outs and no drives longer than 3:34.

And these aren’t exactly strong defenses the Patriots have been playing. Tampa Bay missing Lavonte Davis, Kwon Alexander and TJ Ward? They were starting the corpse of Chris Conte at safety. The Jets employ Demario Davis, Kony Ealy and Buster Skrine as starters.

As for the defense... It’s getting there. There’s still injury concerns at CB and it’s never great to have Jameis Winston and Josh McCown throw for almost 700 yards, none against garbage time prevent defense. But a cautious step in the right direction. But who really knows if everything is sorted out. They barely avoided a 4th quarter meltdown at Tampa Bay and the Jets balled out with Robby Anderson as a #1 WR.

The Patriots defensive struggles start with the linebacker position. Van Noy and Elandon Roberts are blatantly hurting the team and Hightower has quietly struggled this year as he’s bounced around from DE to OLB to ILB to the injury report. David Harris is aging on the bench. Shea McClellin’s return after the bye will help a bit, and he’s a clear upgrade over the first two linebackers, but this unit is certainly the weakest on the team. The Patriots passed on Navarro Bowman and didn’t take a flier on Stephone Anthony when he was available earlier in the season, so I can’t envision a trade. They are putting a lot of faith in Shea freaking McClellin to fix the defense.

Conclusion

Where does that leave the Patriots? With the way the season has gone, most would consider it to be a disappointing season... which just goes to show just how spoiled our fan base is. Half of the fan bases in the NFL would kill for a 4-2 start.

They now enter a 4th unique 2 game stretch: back to back home games vs the Falcons and Chargers before heading into the bye week. Julio Jones+Sanu and Keenan Allen+Mike Williams are tough matchups, and the Pats are still down Rowe and Gilmore for the foreseeable future. Sunday Night’s game will obviously bring back memories of the Super Bowl, when they pulled off the greatest comeback in NFL history with arguably the most well rounded team of the Tom Brady era.

If the Patriots could regain some of their swagger from the year prior, it would go a long way towards re-establishing their winning culture for this year’s team.