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Patriots’ early-down offense is defying expectations so far this year

Related: New England’s offensive line is looking terrific in Year One after Dante Scarnecchia

New England Patriots Vs. Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

When Tom Brady was still leading the New England Patriots’ offense, the team employed a pass-first attack knowing it had the greatest quarterback of all time running the show. Over time, however, the supporting cast surrounding him changed: the Patriots became more run-focused late during the 2018 Super Bowl season, and tried to keep building their team as a balanced one during the ill-fated 2019 campaign.

While 2020 brought considerable change to the offense — Brady left to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency — the Patriots’ overall approach remained the same: the team is still trying to establish a presence on the ground, and so far it has been able to do that.

Four games into its season, the unit of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is ranked top-five in the NFL in ever major rushing category. The team leads the league in attempts with 140, is second in yards with 749, third with seven touchdowns on the ground, and fourth with an average gain of 5.1 yards per attempt. The raw numbers tell only one part of the story, though, as the following graphic by The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin illustrates:

Ben Baldwin

As can be seen, the Patriots’ early-down offense is defying its expectations so far this year by running a lot more than different situations — down, distance, field position, time, score differential, and win probability — would normally dictate: on average, New England is passing the football on seven percent below expectation, trailing only the Los Angeles Chargers and Minnesota Vikings in this respective metric.

The Patriots’ focus on establishing a ground game on early downs does make sense considering the team’s offensive personnel.

Cam Newton is one of the league’s best dual-threat quarterbacks, while the team also has one of the deepest running back rooms in football as well as an offensive line that ranks second in run-blocking win rate five weeks into the season. Add some questions in the passing game — the wide receiver and tight end groups are far from established — and you can see why the Patriots are willing to run the football on early downs despite the projections suggesting a slightly different approach.

The numbers also speak for themselves and justify this approach. Looking at early downs, we can see that the Patriots are tops in the NFL with a run game EPA of 0.1 and a success rate of 47.3 percent. For comparison, their passing offense is ranked 25th and 12th in the two categories, respectively, with an EPA of 0.05 and a success rate of 53.6 percent. New England’s passing offense is not bad by any means, but not quite as successful when compared to the running game.

Of course, the Patriots’ run-heavy approach on early downs is likely not the result of head coach Bill Belichick digging deep into the predicative models. Just take his statements from back in 2016 when asked about using advanced statistics.

“What the hell is that? I mean, you could take those advanced websites and metric them – whatever you want. I don’t know. I have no idea. I’ve never looked at one. I don’t even care to look at one. I don’t care what they say,” Belichick said. “The receivers have got to get open and catch the ball. The quarterback’s got to read the coverage, make the right decision and make an accurate throw. All the metric pages and all of that, I mean I have no idea. You’d need to ask that to a smarter coach than me.”

No matter the reason behind the decision making process, the Patriots’ approach has been working so far. Before Newton had to be played on the NFL’s Reserve/Covid-19 list for testing positive for the Coronavirus, he and the team’s offense were among the most efficient in the game — especially on the ground. With the quarterback’s return coming closer, New England could soon return to those spheres.

Successfully running the football on early downs is a key ingredient, despite what the expectation says.