Regardless of what offensive statistic you look at, you will likely find the New England Patriots near or at the very bottom of the list six weeks into the 2023 regular season. The entire unit has struggled in Year 1 under offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien.
Pinpointing one singular reason why is not possible — the unit is plagued by a variety of issues that have all played a part in its current crisis. Whether it is injuries and insufficient depth, inconsistent player development, or simply talent, all of those factors have caused the Patriots to struggle mightily on that side of the ball.
There does not appear to be an easy fix to the multitude of problems, but O’Brien and the rest of the coaching staff still have to try something. The team’s success this season is depending on it, and future job security might as well.
So, what can be done? Earlier this week, O’Brien might have dropped a hint in the middle of talking about the Patriots’ play speed on a late touchdown drive against the Las Vegas Raiders.
“There’s times when we want to pick up the pace, we haven’t done that a whole lot this year,” he said. “We did that earlier in the year, and that’s something we do pretty well. So, maybe that’s something for the future.”
Of those plays, 25 were passes: Mac Jones went 15-of-25 for 133 yards with one touchdown and one interception, a pair of sacks, and -0.14 expected points added per play. The run game, meanwhile, gained 60 yards on 15 plays and scored once, registering an EPA of 0.03. In addition, New England drew three penalties (0.67 EPA/play) and was flagged once (-1.0 EPA/pay).
The numbers do not stand out, especially in the passing game, but the Patriots did have some positive moments when running no huddle. Their combined EPA per play on such plays over the first two weeks of the season was -0.08 compared to -0.17 in other situations.
“There is a rhythm to the game where you want to try to go fast, and then there’s other times when you want to try to slow it down,” said O’Brien. “There is definitely a feel for that. We’ve done that before this year, but lately we haven’t done a whole lot of that. That’s something that we look at every week, and we’ll keep working on it throughout the rest of the season.”
As O’Brien said, the team’s usage of no huddle plummeted recently.
After running just four plays against the New York Jets in Week 3 — gaining a combined 5 yards and posting a -0.48 EPA per play — the next three games saw a mere six such calls resulting in -8 yards of offense, one pick-six, and a horrendous EPA per play of -1.92. Basically, the Patriots ran fewer no huddle plays the last four games and their success on those deteriorated just as drastically as their offensive success as a whole.
The reasons for that, again, are manifold. Some of it, however, might have to result from the team doing too much before the snap.
I'm all for giving a QB control (if they can handle it), but @theqbschool has talked about how the #Patriots might be doing too much pre-snap— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) October 17, 2023
Here, Hunter Henry has trouble getting set after his second shift following a play change, then another shift takes place as the ball is… pic.twitter.com/jJM2z7mviZ
Even when they did utilize tempo over those last few games, all the pre-snap checks appeared to slow down the Patriots’ momentum.
This stands in contrast to last year’s unit led by Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, which actively tried to simplify things in order to get players to perform quicker. The changes did not yield the desired results, prompting O’Brien to be brought aboard.
Six games into his tenure as offensive coordinator, however, the unit remains stuck in the mud. A return to more no huddle might be a catalyst to get the unit out of its funk again, but those calls alone will likely not be the answer: the Patriots also need to find a way to properly execute, and an apparent information overload does seem to make things more difficult for the team.
“The coaches do a good job of managing all that stuff,” said quarterback Mac Jones when speaking about the aforementioned touchdown drive against the Raiders, a 9:30 rally down two scores in the fourth quarter.
“I did want to push the tempo obviously a little bit more, and just the operation and everything, but we were subbing a lot. That’s part of putting pressure on the defense: playing fast and getting in and out of the huddle to put the pressure on the defense.”
The Patriots did do that quite a bit earlier in the year, and moved the ball not overly effectively but better. It remains to be seen if a regular reintroduction of up-tempo looks and no huddle will therefore happen in an attempt to help get the unit back on track.
At 1-5, however, they might not have a choice. And by the sounds of it, Bill O’Brien knows.