Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien opened a meeting with the offense ahead of Tuesday's practice with a prevailing theme about winning in the NFL.
For the second consecutive week, the Patriots, who are looking to snap a three-game losing streak as they sit at 1-5 on the season, held a rare early-week practice on the fields behind Gillette Stadium. Typically, the players return for meetings the day after games to go over corrections from the film with the coaches. However, head coach Bill Belichick has switched up the schedule with the team struggling. Now, players are off on Monday before returning for an additional practice and meetings at the facility on Tuesday.
When the offense gathered before practice, O'Brien addressed the reality that the Patriots haven't been making winning plays when it matters most to turn the tide of their season.
"One of the things we talked about is there is a very small margin for error in the National Football League," O'Brien told reporters on Tuesday. "There's about, let's just call it, six to eight plays in an NFL football game that make the difference in the game, and we're not making those plays right now. We've got to eliminate that. We have to make those plays. If we do that, we'll turn it around."
The winning plays for the Patriots late in the game have been fleeting, including last Sunday's loss to the Raiders, with many pointing to a critical drop on a well-thrown deep ball by quarterback Mac Jones to wide receiver DeVante Parker on the final offensive possession. But the Pats OC pointed to other issues with late-game drives for the offense.
"We started the drive, and maybe it was the Philly drive, there have been penalties," O'Brien began. "We start the drive with a six-yard gain, and then we get a penalty, and then we get another penalty. Delay of games, I mean, it's terrible. It can't happen. I put that on myself, and we have to do a better job of that. I think it's just we don't get into a rhythm."
New England also started poorly, which has become a theme for this team over the last few seasons. The Patriots have yet to score an opening drive touchdown this season, and it took them till Thanksgiving night in Minnesota to find the end zone on their opening drive last season. New England is one of seven teams that hasn't scored a first-quarter touchdown this season, and falling behind in games, which they did again by ten points to the Raiders, is not a winning formula in this league.
"We have to start these games better. It's not good to start the game with two penalties. It's ridiculous. That falls on me. That falls on them." O'Brien added. "We start these games and get behind 10-0, and that has to stop. We've got to be able to put together drives early in games that come away with points."
O'Brien also answered questions about the offensive line's struggles and undrafted rookie Malik Cunningham's role moving forward, and not that there was much doubt, confirmed that the team is sticking with Mac Jones at quarterback.
Starting with the issues up front, the Patriots took some baby steps forward with the offensive line last week, limiting the Raiders to a respectable 29.7% pressure rate while generating 5.0 expected rushing yards per attempt, both season-best marks for the Pats O-Line.
"Look, they're fighting. I think that there's been some injuries up front. There's some young guys playing there – these aren't excuses, these are facts," O'Brien said. "There are times where the run game looked really clean. The first run of the second half, Rhamdonre's run, was a very well-blocked play. There were certain times when the protection looked great. Other times, we all have to do a better job of making sure we're more consistent in how we perform."
"I thought there were some things that were better. I thought there were things in the passing game, I thought there were things in the running game, still a little too inconsistent."
According to reports, the Pats also added veteran OT Conor McDermott to the practice squad, and McDermott was spotted at Tuesday's practice. The team initially placed McDermott on injured reserve late in training camp, which usually ends a player's season. However, the two sides reached an injury settlement, allowing McDermott to return.
According to Pro Football Focus, Patriots right tackles have allowed a league-high 36 quarterback pressures with four sacks, five quarterback hits, and 27 hurries through six games. McDermott allowed zero sacks and 11 quarterback pressures in six starts last season. McDermott is not the savior of the offense, and it should be noted that he had a rocky camp before his injury, but it can't be much worse than what it has been at that spot.
Along with tinkering with the offensive line, O'Brien also explained the thought process behind signing QB/WR Malik Cunningham to the 53-man roster and making the undrafted rookie essentially the backup quarterback behind starter Mac Jones.
"He can do a lot of different things. I think that was a decision that Bill [Belichick] and Matt [Groh] made. I don't make those decisions to bring him up," O'Brien stated. "That'll be week to week, depending on different things that go on. You could see him at different spots throughout the offense. He can play a lot of different places, so that will be week to week based on the game plan."
"We felt like that was the best way to go about it for the Raider game based on where we were, where we were from an injury standpoint and things like that. How do we get Malik Cunningham into the game? That was the best way to get him into the game."
The last bit of positive Patriots news from Tuesday's media availability was that rookie WR Demario Douglas returned to practice. Douglas, who missed last week's game in Vegas due to a concussion, is tied for the team lead with three 20-plus yard receptions, leading all Patriot receivers by averaging 14.3 yards per catch.
Hopefully, Douglas's dynamic route-running will return to the game field this week once he clears concussion protocol, adding the explosive rookie to second-year WR Tyquan Thornton to add a vertical element to the offense, which is still missing veteran wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster, who wasn't at Tuesday's session as he remains in concussion protocol.
The Patriots offense didn't play the complete game it wanted in Sunday's loss to the Raiders, but two second-half touchdown drives did offer a source of optimism.
New England is now preparing for a divisional showdown with the Bills, where they'll need an offensive breakthrough to keep pace with quarterback Josh Allen and company on Sunday.
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