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Sunday Patriots Notes: Early-down production has been a problem for New England

Related: RPO packages bring ‘more of the college feel’ to the Patriots offense, says Matt Patricia

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Baltimore Ravens v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Week 9 of the NFL season is upon us, and it will see the New England Patriots host the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium. The game will be the final one before New England’s bye week, but there is still a lot going on around the team.

To keep you up to date with some of the stories that have emerged over the last week that we did not have time to cover elsewhere, make sure to check out this week’s Sunday Patriots Notes.

Early-down production has been a problem for New England. The Patriots offense faced 19 third downs in Week 8 against the New York Jets, but it was only able to convert on six of them for a success rate of 31.6 percent. There are several factors contributing to this, but a lot of it is due to New England struggling on first and second down.

Not counting a pair of kneel-down plays, the team had to gain an average of 8.2 yards on third down against the Jets — an unfavorable position to be in. This was not the first time that the Patriots found themselves in such a spot this season, though.

In fact, their production on first and second down is generally leaving a lot to be desired as the following graphic illustrates:

New England has had a tough time moving the ball on the early downs through the first eight games of the season. The team is posting an EPA of just -0.038 on first and second down, the 28th best number in the league (coincidentally, the 29th ranked Colts and their -0.048 EPA will visit Foxborough later today).

As can be seen above, the Patriots are in negative EPA territory both in the running and the passing game. Whereas their -0.063 in the run game is still good enough for 20th in the NFL, their -0.016 on dropbacks is ranked just 27th.

If the Patriots want to improve their offensive efficiency, they need to find a way to generate more consistently positive plays on first and second down. Going through multiple third downs on seemingly every position — especially with 8.2 yards to gain on the average attempt — is not a recipe for success.

Rhamondre Stevenson’s position coach explains what helped him make the second-year jump. The Patriots’ running back room looks a lot different than last year, with James White and Brandon Bolden both having left the organization and some new faces — veteran Ty Montgomery and rookies Pierre Strong Jr. and Kevin Harris — being brought in. Additionally, new RB1 has recently emerged: Rhamondre Stevenson has been the team’s lead back since Week 5, looking like one of the best runners in all of football lately.

A fourth-round draft pick by the Patriots in 2021, Stevenson is right in the middle of the famous second-year jump. How has he been able to make it, though? For his position coach it is all about his approach.

“Rhamondre’s a great player to coach, because he wants to get better and he wants to get coached hard,” Vinnie Sunseri told reporters on Tuesday. “And he takes everything that everybody says in the building and takes it in and leans from it. He took in what James White used to say last year, what Damien Harris says this year.

“Blitz looks, pressure looks, understanding leverage, understanding coverages; he watches a good amount of film; he studies the opponent. He does everything the right way and he’s just a great player to coach. He wants to be really good and he works his butt off.”

Through eight games this season, Stevenson has by far been the Patriots’ most productive player. Leading the team in touches (146), yards from scrimmage (775) and touchdowns (4), the Oklahoma product has been vital to New England’s offense.

Jakobi Meyers is looking forward to going up against Stephon Gilmore. Rhamondre Stevenson is New England’s top running back; Jakobi Meyers is the team’s best wideout: the fourth-year receiver has caught 35 passes for 415 yards and three scores. It would not be a surprise to see him add to those numbers against the Colts.

Of course, doing so will not be easy given who will line up opposite him: former Patriots star Stephon Gilmore, who is in his first year in Indianapolis and the team’s top option. The belief is that the former teammates will see each other frequently in Week 9.

For Meyers, this is exactly what he wants.

“Steph is honestly one of my favorite players,” he said this week. “When I first got to the league, just watching film on him and just how he played. He’s a great player. I hate that he went through the injury and everything that happened and that we don’t have him anymore, but I’m going to have fun going against him.

“I really enjoy going against great players and guys I look up to, because it’s like that [Allen Iverson]-[Michael] Jordan thing. I’m not saying either one of us compares to [them], but everybody wants to go against somebody they respect so you can kind of earn their respect back. So, I’m looking forward to it.”

Gilmore, who is coming off a challenging 2021 season, has played some quality football so far this year. Appearing in all eight of the Colts’ games, he has allowed 28 catches of 47 targets for 363 yards, no touchdowns and one interception, per Pro Football Focus.

Adding some context to the Patriots’ turnover differential. The Patriots are in a weird position when it comes to turnovers. They enter Week 9 ranked first in the league with 16 defensive takeaways, but they are also dead-last with 16 giveaways. Their turnover differential is tied for 15th in the NFL.

There is more to those numbers than meets the eye, however. As was recently pointed out by Anthony Reinhard on Twitter, not all turnovers are the same — and from that perspective the Patriots are among the better teams in football in that department.

When measured by EPA lost or won from turnovers, the Patriots are ranked seventh in the NFL:

The fact that they are that high on the list is remarkable; only two other teams on the plus side of things — the sixth-ranked Kansas City Chiefs and 16th ranked Jacksonville Jaguars — do not currently own a positive turnover differential. This once again shows just how important limiting giveaways truly is, and how the Patriots’ fate this season might very well be tied to showing some improvement in this area.

Bill Belichick takes a deep dive into the art of the run-pass option. The Patriots’ game against the Jets last week saw an increase in run-pass option plays: offensive play-caller Matt Patricia called several RPOs for quarterback Mac Jones, as was pointed out by Pats Pulpit’s own Brian Hines:

Against the New York Jets on Sunday, the Patriots dialed up RPOs 13 times, according to Pro Football Focus. It was the most they’ve called in Mac Jones’ short career by more than double the next-highest game.

On Friday, head coach Bill Belichick took a deep dive into the matter when asked about comparisons between RPO plays and the wishbone offense.

“In the wishbone you had the fullback, the quarterback, the pitch. Now you have the dive, the quarterback and instead of the pitch, it’s some type of pass pattern to a guy in the flat or a bubble screen, or that type of thing,” Belichick said. “Sometimes it’s run or throw but then there are times when it’s run, quarterback reads the end as part of the run and then either he runs or he throws.

“So, there is a dual element to the RPOs and sometimes there’s really a three-way decision. Teams are doing the inside, outside, where they’re doing the sweep to one side and RPO, or keep, or whatever counter-play back to the other side. And then, teams like Baltimore — we did it with Cam [Newton] too — where you have the outside play, and the quarterback keeps it inside. As an outside to inside, instead of inside to outside, just reverse that.”

Coming from Alabama, Mac Jones has plenty of experience running RPO concepts. However, the Patriots have only slowly implemented them into their offense since he arrived in the first round of the 2021 draft.

As Belichick explained, however, RPOs tend to be a lot more complex than they look like.

“Who are you RPOing? Are you RPOing the end or are you RPOing a 3-technique? So, there’s multiple versions of that. Another element of that in the RPO is the hiding behind the coverage, right? So, you can RPO it inside to outside with a blocker or you can run a play and then have somebody come in behind them,” Belichick explained. “So, if the linebacker comes up, you throw it to the guy behind them, if the linebacker drops off, you hand it off, that kind of thing. There’s multiple varieties of that.”

When it comes to New England’s Week 9 opponents, they have also recently started to use more RPOs: with Matt Ryan benched and replaced by new starting quarterback Sam Ehlinger, the Colts have slightly changed their approach in this regard.

“The Colts have really shown all of it,” Belichick said about them. “It was only one week, but they did it all against Washington. They had the three-option plays and they had multiple two-option plays.

“The play they scored on was the sweep, right? But then they also had the shuffle pass. Had the defense widened, then they would’ve shuffled it inside to the tight end, which we saw from Pittsburgh. They did a similar thing, multiple times. It doesn’t really involve the quarterback running, right? So, he either gives it to the sweep or he pitches it into the shuffle guy. So, two and three options.”

Patriots recognize three as practice players of the week. The Patriots brought back the practice player of the week honors this season, and three players were recognized after the 22-17 win over the Jets in Week 8: wide receivers Tre Nixon and Lynn Bowden Jr. as well as linebacker Cameron McGrone. All of them wore black jerseys to practice as recognition.

Nixon, Bowden Jr. and McGrone are all on the practice squad and have not seen any game action so far this year. However, Bowden Jr. might get his chance on Sunday: the first-year Patriot, who has experience as a runner and pass catcher, was elevated from the practice squad for the game versus the Colts.

Tom Brady is on the verge of history, again. Tom Brady has made a habit out of rewriting the records books over his 23-year career in the NFL. The next milestone to be reached by the 45-year-old is a big one: he will soon become the first player in league annals to reach a combined 100,000 regular season and playoff passing yards.

Entering Week 9, the former Patriots QB currently with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is just 164 yards short. Given that he is averaging 283 passing yards per game this season, Brady should be expected to move into sextuple-digit territory on Sunday versus the Los Angeles Rams.

The majority of his almost 100,000 yards — 85,959 of 99,836 (86.1%) — have come in New England, and one of his former pass catchers spoke about the soon-to-be bested milestone this week.

“Records are made to be broken,” said former Patriots wide receiver and current wide receivers coach Troy Brown. “I think that’s one that’s take a very, very, very, very long time and a very, very, very special person to be able to reach that milestone, and a long time from now.

“It’s just a remarkable feat by him. If anybody was going to do it, it was going to be him just because he’s always had the determination to do things that people said he couldn’t do, or whatever it is. It’s pretty amazing. I didn’t realize people are coming up on those numbers, but it’s pretty remarkable and I think it just says a lot about him as a football player and the type of passion, and the type of leadership and everything else that he brings to the game. He sets his mind to it and he goes out and he tries to achieve it.”

Christian McCaffrey joins a pretty exclusive club. In Week 8 against the Los Angeles Rams, recent San Francisco 49ers trade acquisition Christian McCaffrey became just the fourth player since the NFL/AFL merger to record a passing touchdown, receiving touchdown and rushing touchdown in the same game: he threw a TD in the second quarter, caught one in the third, and ran one in in the fourth.

A player reaching the touchdown triple crown is pretty rare. While seven men pulled off the feat ahead of the 1970 season, McCaffrey is now only the fourth to have done so since — a group that also includes a former Patriot: the late David Patten completed the feat in October 2001 versus the Colts.

Patten found the end zone on a 29-yard end around on the Patriots’ first offensive play of the day, before catching a 91-yard touchdown from Tom Brady in the second period. He later added a 60-yard passing touchdown to Troy Brown off a lateral and another 6-yard scoring reception for good measure New England went on to beat Indianapolis 38-17.

The others to do so were Walter Payton in 1979 and LaDainian Tomlinson in 2005. 17 years later, the NFL has another triple-crown champion.