The New England Patriots offense has not met expectations so far this year, ranking among the least efficient units in football through the first 10 weeks of the season. The “why” has been the subject of constant debate.
As with most things pro football, however, issues are not always as black and white as they may seem on the surface. The Patriots’ inconsistency especially in the passing game, for example, is the result of several problems overlapping.
Some of those have been prominently mentioned in the discourse surrounding the team. Quarterback Mac Jones has made some questionable decisions and thrown some inaccurate passes; the offensive line has had some issues with continuity over the last few weeks; the play-calling has oftentimes been to conservative in particular on early downs; there are not enough run-pass option plays.
Other problems, meanwhile, are flying a bit more under the radar. Among those is route spacing.
Basically speaking, route spacing refers to how far apart or close together the different routes on any given play are. There are some where spreading things out makes sense to maximize the space covered; other instances might call for a tighter formation to create natural rubs or similar friction within a defense.
Proper spacing can go a long way toward freeing players up through scheme and design. Unfortunately for the Patriots, that has been a definitive problem for them since losing long-time offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to the Las Vegas Raiders:
Possibly the most egregious problem I've seen from a coaching perspective is route spacing.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) November 11, 2022
Receivers' stems and route breaks have been way too close way too often. Not maximizing space to help create separation or stretch coverages pic.twitter.com/BUDht2tLRh
The clips above show several examples of the Patriots’ designs simply not helping the plays develop properly. Why does this matter? Because there are only so many patterns you can use to manipulate coverages, and a limited number of players eligible to catch the football, on any given play.
The goal has to be to create space for those players, by having routes work in unison. A go route, for example, might help clear out an opening for an out-breaking route. Two crossers at a different depth might create conflict for the underneath defenders.
No matter what the play designs are, it is all about getting players open. The Patriots’ designs, however, have not done that consistently enough.
Is it a problem with design or personnel, though? Possibly both given that not every player is a natural fit to run every route. Some are quicker than others, while not everybody can successfully take the top off a defense. A deep vertical route run by Tyquan Thornton may look different than one run by Jakobi Meyers: Thornton has superior straight-line speed, while Meyers has other skills the rookie does not possess.
Regardless of where exactly the blame lies for this, the fact remains: New England needs to improve its spacing — something the team very well knows.
“We’re working on the spacing and all those things, and that’s something that we need to improve on,” quarterback Mac Jones told reporters heading into the bye week. “Me finding the open guy and start with my read, but also move through quicker and all of that stuff too.”