The New England Patriots have one of the most productive rushing offenses in the NFL, but what they don’t have is a passing attack to complement and take some pressure off of it. No matter which statistic you might look at, the Patriots’ numbers in the aerial game are either at the bottom of the league or close to it — quite the change from the heyday of the Tom Brady era (although actually not that much compared to 2019).
On Tuesday morning, Bill Belichick was also asked about the struggles New England’s passing game has encountered this season and he explained what needs to be done better in order for the production to improve. It’s pretty much everything.
“Our passing game still is not as efficient as we need it to be, with really everything that’s involved,” the Patriots’ head coach said. “The protection, route distribution which involves everybody — tight ends, backs and receivers — timing, and the ability to execute and create separation in man-to-man coverage. We continue to work on all those things. ...
“There’s a lot of things we can improve on in the passing game, and everybody’s working on them. We’ll see if we can. We’ll have to do a good job this week; that’s a good secondary, they play good pass defense.”
New England will go up against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, needing a win to keep its slim playoff hopes alive another week. The Patriots and Dolphins are obviously no strangers when it comes to squaring off against each other, with their most recent meeting on opening day seeing Belichick’s team move the ball pretty efficiently through the air: quarterback Cam Newton completed 15 of 19 passes for 155 yards.
The main story, as was so often the case this season, was still the ground game, however. Led by Newton’s 75 rushing yards and two touchdowns, the Patriots gained 218 yards on 41 carries — an average of 5.3 yards per run that was also made possible because of a passing game posing a credible threat.
Of course, a lot has happened since then, and the Patriots’ passing game has failed to string together consistently positive performances like Week 1’s. Along the way, the supporting cast also changed: Jakobi Meyers, Damiere Byrd and N’Keal Harry have taken over as the top three receiving weapons with Julian Edelman, who led the team with five catches for 57 yards against the Dolphins, now on injured reserve.
Belichick also spoke about those three starting receivers on Tuesday.
“Damiere has had a solid year for us right from the beginning,” he said. “N’Keal’s started to come on here in the last few weeks. Jakobi’s had a pretty productive year, as well, primarily inside but he’s also played outside in some of our two-receiver sets and has been productive there and has shown the ability to block and he’s been involved in some inside blocking plays and crack plays that have helped us in the running game.
“Our running game has been more productive than it has been in the past. I think our receivers have a role in that.”
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels also spoke about the group, and the talent as a whole available on his side of the ball, on Tuesday. While he pointed out that it would be hard to comment on Belichick’s statements without knowing what exactly he was referring to, McDaniels praised his skill position players for their work this year as well.
“They work their butt off, and they’re doing what they can do each week to prepare and play their best,” said McDaniels. “I couldn’t ask any more of those guys with their attitude and effort and approach. I don’t worry about this, that and the other in terms of weapons and all that. We have enough people here to win, and we’ve got to do a better job of executing and putting those guys in positions to be productive.
“But they come in here and work their butt off every week, and they’ve all made plays and done things to help us win. And we have to do more of that as we move forward here in the last few weeks.”
McDaniels, like Belichick, also mentioned some of the elements that go into making a productive passing attack — unlike the one the Patriots have been fielding at times this year.
“There’s a lot of things that go into being productive: spacing distribution, ability to create separation against tighter coverage or man-to-man coverage, flare control, conversions, based on what the coverage is to try to open up an area for another player,” New England’s long-time offensive player caller pointed out. “There’s a lot of things that go into making a productive passing game.”
At the end of the day, McDaniels and Belichick need to find a way to improve all of those elements not just for the remainder of the 2020 season. Heading into 2021, meanwhile, that process might also involve upgrading the talent surrounding whoever will start at the quarterback position.