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#PostPulpit Mailbag: How does New England get the run game going?

This week’s Patriots mailbag answers questions about the lack of run game, fixing the offense, the backup QB situation, and more.

Miami Dolphins v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The New England Patriots enter a Week 3 matchup with the New York Jets they may be best described as a must-win. Luckily for them, the quarterback for the Gang Green is none other than Zach Wilson, who boasts an 0-4 career record against New England.

Beyond the QB being winless against his division rival, Belichick and Co. have made life extremely difficult for Wilson in four matchups. Wilson has tossed seven interceptions to go with just two touchdowns and posted a 50.6 passing rating.

For New England’s defense, this game plan remains the same this week.

The first order of business is to stop the Jets run game and put the ball in Wilson’s hands. With a dynamic backfield that includes Breece Hall and Dalvin Cook, that’s easier said than done. After a down performance last week against Miami’s rushing attack, a bounce back should be in store for Ja’Whaun Bentley and the run defense against a more traditional downhill attack.

If New England can slow down that attack, it will be all up to Wilson. From there, pressure will be the key as the BYU product is statically the league’s worse passer under pressure. Last season, that featured six INTs and a league-worst 18.6 passer rating while under pressure.

To make matters worse for Wilson, the Jets offensive line currently ranks dead last in pass block win rate. That has left the quarterback under pressure on 53 percent (!) of his drop backs this season.

In the Patriots’ eyes, getting pressure will be key, but they still would prefer letting Wilson throw the ball to force mistakes. That has led to the Patriots running their simulated pressures in recent matchups, allowing them to fluster Wilson while also keeping bodies back in coverage.

New England also used a QB spy at times last year to not let Wilson makes plays with his legs and again forcing him to try and make plays through the air. Mack Wilson had that role at times last year, while Marte Mapu could factor into that equation this year as well.

If the Patriots can follow the blueprint from years pasts, it should be enough to pull out a victory in an expected rock fight. With the stage now set, let’s get into the rest of this week’s #PostPulpit mailbag.

@Shaun42092478 There’s no free agents or teams willing to trade players that will fix our problems. What are we suppose to do?

You hit the nail on the head here, Shaun. Baring something surprising and unexpected, there is nothing they can do personnel wise to turn this around during the year. It’s up to the players in the locker room.

For now, it all starts up front with the offensive line. It’s no secret that it’s been bad as New England has struggled to run the ball and rank 31st in the league in pass block win rate. The best hope here is health and continuity lead to increased performance as the Patriots haven't had their “starting” line play together all summer. With Cole Strange, Michael Onwenu, and Trent Brown appearing set to play this week, it could be the healthiest we've seen this unit since early August.

While increased health should improve the unit, New England then needs to find a way to run the ball better. Game script has caused the Patriots to be pass heavy early in the season (Mac Jones leads the league with 96 attempts), but New England’s backs are 27th in rushing average.

One thought on how to improve here is get back to more of their downhill gap run scheme. While we are all for Bill O’Brien’s spread system that features run-pass options, New England’s backfield features two 220+ pound backs that are at their best when going downhill instead of starting in shotgun.

O’Brien explained earlier this week that there has been an “imbalance” they hope to change with Mac Jones under center vs. in shotgun. Getting Jones back under center more will lead to more of these downhill runs, where New England can hopefully get lineman to the second level to spring larger gains.

With Jones under center more, they can then hopefully marry that with more play-action attempts to try and create more explosive plays through the air, something they've struggled with through two weeks (two total pass plays of 20+ yards).

It won't be easy this week against a Jets defensive front that is one of the best in the league, but a step in the right direction would be a welcomed sight.

What’s the biggest issue with the offense currently? — Tony

The biggest issue with the Patriots offense currently is their lack of explosive plays. As we touched on above, they have just two pass plays of 20+ yards — one a screen to Rhamondre Stevenson late against the Eagles — which is the second-fewest in football.

With the lack of explosives, New England’s offense is being forced to string together long drives. Consistently putting together long scoring drives is difficult in the NFL, especially for a team prone to allowing sacks and committing penalties. That’s shown as they have crossed the 50-yard line 16 times so far (tied for most in the league), but only six of those drives (37.5 percent) have resulted in points.

Jets head coach Robert Sales had the same assessment.

“They’ve played two of the better defenses in football and they had 82 plays against Philadelphia and 75 against Miami, so they’re possessing the ball, moving the ball,” Saleh said this week. “Albeit it may not look explosive, but they’re moving the football. They play clean.”

As New England does not have the playmakers on offense to generate explosives by themselves — or bench perhaps their most dynamic player after one mistake (Douglas) — it comes back to the scheme. More play-action would be at the top of our list for improvements.

@doc110723 With the OL lacking depth why isn’t BB looking at La’el Collins. Sounds like one of Bill’s go to signings.

It would make sense to inquire about La’El Collins as they need upside at the position. But, the 30-year old isn't a guarantee to solve all their problems. He didn't look like his Dallas self in Cincinnati last year and now has not played football since last December when he tore his ACL and MCL. He’d be worth a look, but isn't necessarily a lock to be the answer.

@djnj0919 Is Rhamondre Stevenson fully healthy? Do you think Zeke will get more time on the field?

As for the running backs, Stevenson has not been on the injury report since his stomach bug prior to Week 1. He’s good to go, but I wonder if Elliott starts to take more time away from Stevenson. One of the biggest focuses this offseason was lowering Stevenson’s snap count (66 percent) and touch total (279) from last season. Through two weeks, Stevenson is playing 72 percent of the offensive snaps and has 36 touches (17 game pace of 306).

Elliott, meanwhile, has played just over 32 percent of the snaps and recorded 17 touches. The hope is some of the changes discussed above can benefit the run game to get both backs going and lead to more balance in the backfield. Also, I’d vote for less of the pony package with both backs on the field.

@XLIX2k15 Whats going on with Matt corral?

The Matt Corral saga took another odd twist this week. After the quarterback was waived on Monday, it appeared he was set to return to New England’s practice squad. That was until there was reportedly some change of plans leaving the two sides going different directions.

With Corral out of the picture, New England made a move to sign Will Grier to their active roster on Thursday. Grier, who is another former Carolina Panthers’ third-round selection, is a Patriot-type of quarterback as an accurate pocket passer. It also marks the fourth third-string QB they've brought in this year, joining Trace McSorely, Ian Book, and Corral himself.

That’s all for this week’s #PostPulpit mailbag. If you have questions you’d liked to be answered next week, submit them on Twitter using #PostPulpit. Make sure to be following @iambrianhines and @PatsPulpit as well.