After back-to-back disappointing outings during which it scored just 10 and 12 points, respectively, the New England Patriots’ offense is now only ranked 29th in football with a scoring average of 19 points per game. While the recent circumstances contributed to this— the team was able to practice only twice over the last two weeks due to its Coronavirus outbreak — another factor hurting the team recently is its slow starts.
A look at the raw numbers shows this: the Patriots have scored only seven points in the first 15 minutes of their games so far, and those have come courtesy of a Devin McCourty pick-six in Week 2 against the Seattle Seahawks. The offense, meanwhile, has been shut out in Quarter One for five straight games. This is a problem that was on full display during New England’s loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday.
Despite Cam Newton being back on the field after having missed the team’s last game due to his Covid-19 diagnosis, he and the offense struggled to get into any rhythm until late in the fourth quarter — partially because it lost three turnovers.
“Those are always going to kill you,” said running back James White after the game. “You turn the ball over a few times in this league, your percentages of winning the football game drop off a lot. So we’ve got to do a better job of protecting the football at the least. If we’re not going to put drives together, let’s just not turn it over. Our defense was doing a great job of stopping those guys in the red zone and they created some turnovers at the end to give us a chance. We’ve just got to do a better job of helping them out.”
Cam Newton, who threw a pair of interceptions in his return, sang a similar tune after the game. The Patriots’ starting quarterback also noted that the production simply was not where it needed to be.
“It just comes down to production on the offensive side, execution on all cylinders and we just have to do that, no matter who is out there, no matter what the substitution is, no matter what the situation is, just get the job done at all costs and then we’ll worry about everything else later,” said Newton when speaking about the offensive struggles after the 18-12 loss.
Those struggles are a common theme in first quarters this year. New England’s offense is ranked dead last in the NFL in points scored after being the second best team in football a year ago (when the unit averaged 7.1 points per first quarter). The question, of course, now becomes how to get on track and start quicker — thus putting less pressure on a defense that has only given up one touchdown over the first 15 minutes of games but 22 total points (4.4 per game; 10th in the league).
One obvious solution is simply getting back on the practice fields to implement the game plans better.
“The more we can get out there and practice and improve our timing, our execution, our anticipation, our awareness, our communication, the more I think those things will help us,” said head coach Bill Belichick on Monday. “We’re going to do everything we can to maximize that and I think that will definitely help our individual performances and it will also help our unit performances the more we can do that. Hopefully, we’ll get a full dose of it this week.”
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels could also attempt some structural changes, by focusing more on passing the football against defenses that are naturally keying in on slowing down one of the league’s best ground attacks. Of course, this approach would also come with some risks considering that Newton’s supporting cast has not shown that it can consistently win its matchups.
No matter what McDaniels opts to do, one thing is certain: the Patriots cannot continue their slow starts if they want to put themselves in the best possible position to compete in every game — and not just in the final few minutes like they did against Denver.