The New England Patriots finished a respectable 5-for-6 on fourth downs against the Buffalo Bills. The problem is that relying on all four downs to keep drives alive is neither sustainable nor a consistent recipe for success. More than anything it was the result of New England once again struggling on third down.
The Patriots were able to convert just one of their 10 third down plays during their 33-21 loss to the Bills; they moved the chain a second time due to a roughing-the-passer penalty. Going against a high-powered offense such as Buffalo’s and needing to take advantage of every opportunity, extending drives at this low a rate will inevitably lead to disaster.
On Sunday, it certainly did: New England’s failures on third down on both sides of the ball — the defense allowed Buffalo to go 6-for-12 — were a major reason for the 33-21 loss.
The problem is more complex than just pointing to third downs, however. At least at this point in their development, the Patriots are simply not built to win shootouts.
One part of that, at least on Sunday, was obviously the performance in drive-extending situations. The early down outing did not help either, though.
Whereas the Bills had to travel an average of 6.7 yards on their third-down plays, the Patriots had to gain 7.8. That 1.1-yard differential may not seem like a lot, but it makes life harder for an offense like New England’s that is at its best when playing a balanced game and not telegraphing its intentions.
Starting center David Andrews said so himself after the game.
“I think we just have to go out there and execute,” he said. “Really first down, first play, just getting a positive play, getting the drive going. Second-and-10, third-and-10, that’s a hard way to play the game and we played that game a little too much today. Hard to, against a good defense and good football team, play the game in long yardage like that.”
New England’s defense is playing at its best when allowed to be opportunistic and get aggressive while defending a lead. The unit in itself is a good one to begin with, despite not forcing any punts on Sunday, but it ascends when allowed to play from ahead and pin its ears back against the pass.
The offense, meanwhile, is still a middle-of-the-pack unit 16 weeks into the season. Led by a rookie quarterback — one that has been playing well overall but is still held back by inexperience and, on Sunday, a mediocre supporting cast — it is conservative compared to others around the NFL primarily because it keeps shooting itself in the foot too often, as running back Damien Harris put it.
“Every time we step onto the field our job as an offense is to go out there and score points,” Harris said on Sunday. “We did that a little bit today, but we didn’t do it enough. We have to figure out a way that we can continue to improve in that area. Extend drives, have more positive plays, score more points, finish in the red zone, and just stop hurting ourselves in critical situations.
“Ultimately, that’s what it comes down to: we’re shooting ourselves in the foot too much, and we’re just not executing. We have to come in tomorrow, review everything, get the corrections, wipe it — this game’s over with — and we have another tough challenge coming up next week.”
Whether it is a penalty to put the team behind the sticks, or not consistently gaining enough yards early to create manageable down-and-distance situations, the unit as a whole needs to be on point throughout the game to hang with the best teams in the NFL such as the Bills. It certainly did not do that on Sunday afternoon, with the disappointing third-down rate a prime example.
The Patriots offense has shown that it can put things together, though. It performed well against the Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans, and beat the Bills in the first matchup in Buffalo (albeit in unique conditions).
The difference between those games and the one on Sunday are quickly found, though. New England kept limiting its mistakes on offense, and thus putting the defense in a better situation overall. It never entered shootout territory and played the game on its own terms.
Unless the Patriots can keep those miscues at a minimum, however, they will not be able to go blow-for-blow against a team like the Bills. Sunday made it very clear once again.