New England Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio once explained the job of a pass catcher in the NFL in rather straight-forward terms: “A receiver has got two jobs, get open and catch the ball.” So far this season, Caserio’s team has had some issues in both areas and as a result the Patriots’ passing offense is among the least productive in the NFL through six weeks of regular season play.
The unit has gained just 1,036 yards (30th) and 59 first downs (30th) so far and it also ranks just 16th in success rate (49.2%), 27th in DVOA (-17.2%) and 28th in EPA (-0.063). No matter the statistic, New England is below average in passing the football — quite the change compared to the days of future Hall of Famer Tom Brady.
Even the greatest quarterback of all time might have had his fair share of struggles, though. For one, the team was able to practice only twice over a two-week stretch leading into last Sunday’s loss against the Denver Broncos, while the offensive line saw some enormous personnel turnover along the way. Furthermore, Brady’s heir as the team’s starting QB, Cam Newton, also had to sit out one game after being diagnosed with the Coronavirus.
Those are not the only problems for New England’s passing game, though. The team’s pass catchers have also not been able to do the first part of what Caserio was talking about consistently enough: get open.
According to the league’s Next Gen Stats, the Patriots’ receivers have been graded as open — meaning that they have three-plus yards of separation — on only 29.5 percent of their passing targets. This number ranks as the sixth lowest in the NFL at this point in time.
New England’s top-three wide receivers have all not stood out in the category: N’Keal Harry’s average separation when targeted is 3.1 yards, while Damiere Byrd and Julian Edelman check in at just 2.8 and 2.7 yards, respectively. The numbers are not fully indicative of a player’s success when it comes to getting open, but they do show that Cam Newton (as well as backups Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer) had to attempt some difficult throws along the way.
Those separation issues, however, are more complex as they may seem at first glance. After all, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels explained earlier this week that getting open is not as simple as running away from the nearest defender.
“There’s a lot that goes into creating separation,” McDaniels said. “The first thing is what the scheme is and what we’re asking the players to do. There’s the release, there’s the stem of the route, there’s the top of the route, and there’s the finish of the play. The combination of all those things being done properly combined with what we’re actually doing, we need to do a lot of those things right.
“So, if we do them right, I think we will end up with success. And when we don’t, we’re going out like every other team in the league: if you make a couple of mistakes on those things you might get covered a little better.”
At this point in the regular season, it appears as if the Patriots have had plenty of mistakes when looking at the numbers above and the team’s overall offensive rhythm when attempting to move the ball through the air. The focus then naturally shifts to the receiving talent and the question whether or not a top-three consisting of Byrd, Harry and Edelman when ranked by playing time is sufficient enough to generate an attack that can stress defenses like the San Francisco 49ers’ this week.
The trade deadline on November 3rd may bring some answers to those questions, but for now McDaniels and his fellow offensive coaches can only work on getting better with the available personnel.
“There’s always an opportunity for us that we can improve that,” said the veteran assistant coach. “We work hard at it in practice every week, we try to do a good job of focusing on each part of the route that allows you to gain separation. This league’s a league of tight coverage, there’s not going to be a lot of big windows to throw the ball and catch the ball in.
“You have to do a good job of doing those things right and giving yourself a chance against good people in coverage. We’ll continue to try to work on that.”