The 4-0 Patriots are off to Washington to face the winless in an out-of-conference match up and their second-straight road game. The Pats are coming off a hard-fought win in Buffalo, while Washington has had progressively-worsening defeats to a collection of NFC foes. With three potential starting quarterbacks, there are plenty of questions for Washington as they're trending in the wrong direction and about to face a Patriots defense that is off to a historic start.
A foe like the Washington defense could be just what the Patriots offense needs. Despite the undefeated start, the Pats are searching for a consistent and balanced 60-minute effort on the offensive side of the ball. Injuries have complicated a situation already ripe with turnover and the results have been choppy, especially with the running game which is still looking for a breakout game this season.
The search for an offensive identity is not a new story line. In fact, it's a common one and even dynamic starts to a season can often take unexpected turns, but October is when teams really start to grasp who they are and what they do well. Lucky for them the defense has been shutdown to start the year and last week they proved they could be clutch as well. That has allowed the offensive growing pains to have minimal impact, but at some point they'll have to start clicking. With a few weeks of continuity along the offensive line, along with the development of the passing game, the Patriots should be primed to break out.
Here are the keys for the Pats to get fully on track with a performance they can feel good about in all three phases.
Finally Get the Running Game Going
The Patriots have had just five runs over 10 yards, only four teams in the league have fewer. With Washington giving up 14 of those kind of big runs, tied for 4th-most in the league, and ranked 29th in rushing-yards-per-game, the opportunity is there for Sony Michel to finally get to the second level of the defense and make things happen. So much of the Patriots offensive sputtering can be connected to how bad the Pats have been running the ball on first down, where they're 30th in the league in average-yards-gained.
The long and short of it is that they've got to figure out how to run the ball on early downs. So much of their offensive inconsistency and struggle is because of how they're running the ball on those early downs, leaving them in difficult third downs with an average of seven-plus-yards to go. Things can look better in a hurry once you're getting consistent yardage on first down. It opens up play action. It opens up downfield shots. And then in turn, it opens things up for explosive runs as teams are forced on their heels.
If there was just one key for this week, it's a dedicated focus to running the ball on Washington. It would be just the catalyst the offense needs as they start to close in on the difficult part of their schedule that starts in a month.
Just Keep Doing That Thing, Defense
Maybe this shouldn't be a key because the defense is playing better than they ever have and that includes the historic dynasty defenses of 2003 and 2004 and we don't want to jinx them but here it is. The stats this defense is putting together are mind-blowing and facing an offense like Washington gives little reason to doubt they won't continue to dominate like they have been. 13.5 percent on third down!? 6.8 points-per-game?! It's unreal.
There's simply no obvious weaknesses so far. Now, Buffalo did have some successful runs with Frank Gore and they left some plays on the field in the passing game, with open underneath routes that Josh Allen just wasn't able to find. Maybe a veteran like Colt McCoy will be able to understand that taking those easy dump offs can make a world of difference instead of tossing up deep prayers that get intercepted, but the Patriots are going to continue to bring the heat up front and they have the man-coverage corners on the back end that have matched every receiving corps they've faced. It's been fun to watch and there's every reason to believe they'll just keep doing what they do against Washington.
Receivers Making Plays
Julian Edelman toughed it out last week against the Bills but he was clearly affected by his injury. Without him being the reliable go-to over the middle that he has always been, Tom Brady had one of the worst statistical games of his career. Part of that was the Bills, but another part of it was that Josh Gordon and Phillip Dorsett just weren't good enough. The passing game was out of sync, resulting in too many throwaways by Brady. Someone has to start stepping up because even when he's healthy, Edelman can't do it all alone even with James White chipping in out of the backfield. What are we looking for? Consistency, yards-after-catch and yards-after-contact. Not catch-and-fall. And not even amazing one-off catches that look great on the highlights but aren't reliable and sustainable pieces of offensive football. A five-plus catch performance from Gordon, Dorsett, Matt Lacosse or even Jakobi Meyers is just what the Hoodie ordered.
Mike Nugent In
For the first time since 2010, the Patriots will have a new kicker. Per Adam Schefter's early report, veteran Mike Nugent will take the duties over this weekend. This will be Nugent's eighth team and the good news is that the 37-year-old shouldn't be thrust into the fire in Washington. But all eyes will still be on him and hopefully he'll have plenty of chances to knock the rust off with extra points and kickoffs. He hit all six of his field goal attempts and eight-of-nine extra points last season in three games with the Raiders.
Washington played tougher than the box scores look, but it would be shocking to see whoever they decide to start at quarterback light up this Patriots defense. Nearly all the signs are pointing to this being a back-on-track game for the Patriots offense, especially in the run game. If that happens the passing game will open up as well, setting up a feel-good win for the Patriots who are probably the most unsatisfied offensive team with a 4-0 record in memory.
Patriots 42, Washington 3