The New England Patriots’ 20-year dynasty was built on some pretty simple principles. One of those was not shooting yourself in the foot by keeping easily avoidable mistakes and mental errors at a minimum.
The Patriots were pretty good at this between 2001 and 2019, and as a result won six Super Bowls. They also ranked near the top of the league in one key statistic basically year-in and year-out: turnover differential.
Fast forward to Year 3 of the post-dynasty (i.e. post-Tom Brady) era, and you see a different team — one that has had a harder time staying on the plus side of turnovers. They were okay in 2020 (t-13th, +3) and quite solid in 2021 (t-8th, +7) but are unable to follow that same path three games into their 2022 campaign.
New England is ranked just 29th with a -4 at the moment, meaning that their defense has generated four fewer takeaways than the offense has produced. A league-leading 25.8 percent of offensive possessions has ended with a giveaway.
All of that is an issue, and the Patriots know it.
Following a Week 3 loss to the Baltimore Ravens that saw the team turn its offense turn the ball over four times compared to two takeaways from the defense, several players addressed these concerns.
“Old adage, you can’t win until you keep from losing,” said center David Andrews. “I think this game sums that up. We did a lot of really good things, moved the ball well. Some good situational football, but at the end of the day you can’t win until you keep from losing.”
“Taking care of the ball is what we need to do to give ourself a chance,” added wide receiver Kendrick Bourne.
“It’s tough to see fundamental things like ball security be a big factor,” said fellow wideout Nelson Agholor, who lost a fumble.
Agholor, who has fumbled the ball away twice so far this season, is one of two players on the offensive side of the ball to have suffered a giveaway. The other is quarterback Mac Jones, who tossed a league-high five interceptions before going down with an ankle injury late in the Baltimore game (coincidentally while throwing his third pick of the day), and who also lost a fumble on a strip sack in Week 1.
Of course, it is easy to point the finger at those two players. However, the issues go beyond them.
For starters, two of Jones’ turnovers were the direct result of his teammates messing up. The aforementioned strip sack came on a play that saw the offensive line fail to account for a blindside blitz. Meanwhile, one of his interceptions appears to have been the result of wide receiver DeVante Parker not being on the same page as his QB:
Mac and Parker weren't on the same page on the RZ pick. Looks like DeVante thought he was part of a pick, especially since NE likes to target RBs in the flat near the EZ.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) September 26, 2022
Ravens clearly anticipated one bc Mondre's defender is already leveraged outside in an abnormal position. pic.twitter.com/XI2IUwiH8A
Parker, who has been the target on four of Jones’ five interceptions, also was involved in a pick that could have been flagged as defensive pass interference by the officials. Alas, the play stood as called; the New England offense therefore enters Week 4 with eight giveaways on its books — the second highest such number in the NFL.
“There are some contact plays that are contact plays, but ball security is the responsibility of the people that have the ball and the execution of the play,” head coach Bill Belichick said earlier this week. “Quarterback gets strip-sacked because of a missed block or mental error on the protection, or something like that, that’s not really the quarterback’s responsibility. But generally speaking, if you have the ball you have to secure it.
“We haven’t done a good enough job of that. Coaching, playing, accountability, responsibility, we all have to do a better job.”
Wide receivers coach Ross Douglas echoed his head coach’s remarks on the matter.
“It’s something that we have to learn from, that we have to continue to harp on as a coaching staff. As players and as everybody in that organization, we have to make a full commitment to ball security,” Douglas said.
“I remember when I was a GA at Rutgers, I hear it burned into my head right now, Coach [Greg] Schiano would always yell, like, ‘The ball is the program! The ball is the program!’ We just have to take care of the football so we can continue to move the ball and put points on the board. It’s something that we just have to emphasize.”
Is there an easy fix right now? It depends on the coaches and players.
Will the former group be able to make that emphasizing effort Douglas spoke about, and will the latter adhere to it? Will Mac Jones, or his likely injury replacement Brian Hoyer, be able to make smarter decisions with the ball? Will the protection take away easy sacks? Will the ball-carriers be more careful (something Agholor was not in Week 3)?
If those questions are answered with a “yes”, the Patriots should be in better shape moving forward because they have moved the ball quite well at times. However, if their turnover rate stays high it will be a long season regardless of who is lining up under center.