One of the biggest issues for the New England Patriots offense the first two weeks of the season was its one-dimensionality. Out of 149 plays on that side of the ball, 105 were pass plays compared to only 44 runs.
The game script against Philadelphia and Miami did the Patriots no favors in that regard — they fell behind early both times and had to rely on the pass to move the ball in chunks — but even when they did try to run the ball they generally went nowhere. A lack of personnel continuity along the offensive line was the main culprit for that.
In total, New England generated just 164 yards on the ground in Weeks 1 and 2, and ranked 17th in the league with -0.121 expected points added per run. Accordingly, the Week 3 matchup with the New York Jets looked like a mismatch on paper.
And yet, the Patriots were able to move the football quite well against a talented front.
The EPA of -0.18 does not look particularly encouraging, but the Patriots succeeded in grinding out yards in a tough environment. On the day, they gained 157 on 40 carries for 3.9 yards per attempt.
“I think we knew that it was going to be a running game,” said Ezekiel Elliot, who led the team with 80 yards on 16 runs. “So, we were just ready to come out and run the ball as much as we needed to. Our O-line did a great job of just being physical all game and at the line of scrimmage.”
The numbers overall were again not outstanding. For a unit struggling on the ground, though, they were a much-needed sign of life and contributed to the Patriots finding some offensive success particularly in the first half.
“Against a defense like the Jets’ you don’t want to go back there and throw 50 times. That’s probably not a good way to play them,” head coach Bill Belichick told WEEI’s The Greg Hill Show on Monday.
“And so, if you can keep the distances shorter and punch some runs in there and make them play the run it balances things off. I’d say this was probably one of the better games pass protecting the last few times we played them. We had a little more time, and I think part of that came from the running game and being able to keep them honest and playing the run.”
The Patriots getting the Jets to at least respect the threat of a ground game allowed New England to open up a bit more. The best example of that is in the usage of play action.
After calling only 14 such plays the first two weeks of the season at a rate of 13.3 percent, offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien increased that number to 20 percent versus New York. The biggest offensive play of the day — a 58-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Mac Jones to tight end Pharaoh Brown — also came off of play action.
“Play action works a lot better when you have a good running play going, you can make them play the run,” said Belichick. “Don’t get a lot of draw on play actions when they’re not respecting the run. It goes hand in hand.”
The Patriots make it no secret that they want to be balanced on offense, and for the first time this year they were just that. Even with the Jets having one of the best defensive lines in football, and New England’s offensive counterpart remaining a work in progress, they were able to commit to the run.
The result may have been a bit hit or miss, but it was a step in the right direction regardless. The Patriots, after all, want to run the ball.
It might not be the winning formula in the NFL of 2023, but they will try to make it a winning formula for them. At least on Sunday, it was.