The New England Patriots were one of the best running teams in the NFL last season. Even with their offensive line seeing considerable personnel turnover throughout the year, they finished among the league leaders in both volume and efficiency.
New England, for better or worse, built its offensive identity around the running game in 2020. With one key member of last year’s attack gone — dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton was released during roster cutdowns — the approach has changed a bit; the Patriots are no longer as reliant on running the ball as they were at times last year.
The problem is that running the ball has been a problem for the team period in 2021. That is especially true on early downs.
There is no way to sugarcoat it, the Patriots’ early-down ground game has been bad five games into the season. Really, really bad. A look at the expected points added per running play shows just how much of a struggle moving the ball that way has been for the club:
While New England’s early-down dropback numbers do not stand out either compared to the rest of the league — the Patriots are ranked 26th with an EPA of 0.033 —they are last in the league when it comes to running success. The team’s offense is posting a -0.291 EPA when handing the ball off on first or second down.
For comparison, the Patriots posted a positive EPA of 0.005 in the same situations last year. That number would rank the team in the top-six league-wide this season; in 2020, it ranked third.
Obviously, the sample size is small and a game like the one against Tampa Bay certainly does not help New England’s efficiency numbers. But the issues remain regardless of the -0.683 EPA and -1 rushing yards posted on 8 carries that day. Running the ball has not been an effective method of trying to march down the field so far this year for the Patriots.
So, what can be done about it? From a statistical perspective, trusting Mac Jones should help: moving the ball through the air has always been more efficient from an EPA-perspective compared to running it. Even with a rookie under center that remains the case as the graphic and numbers above show.
The Patriots and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels might be willing to do that as Jones grows more comfortable in the offense, which in turn could help free things up for the run game. In order to get better in those situations, more than that is needed: the offensive line needs to generate a more consistent push — something that was the case against a bad Houston Texans defense in Week 5 — while the backs also need to be more decisive.
New England’s early-down ground game is not a lost cause, but it has done little so far this year to support Mac Jones. Maybe it is therefore time for the Patriots to trust him to start supporting the running game.