It's hard to ignore the Patriots finishing Sunday night's game against the Buccaneers with a single negative rushing yard total. Yes, the passing offense moved the ball and had some success, nearly pulling off the upset, but offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels knows he'll need more out of his backfield going forward as the team continues to look for their identity.
"There are two ways to look at the running game," said McDaniels during his weekly Tuesday check-in with the media. "One is, volume always results in better average as the game wears on. There's that school of thought. Or you could look at it and say you're going to need to have a certain element of success early in the game and throughout in order to continue to play balanced so you don't find yourself in a bunch of third down and long situations.
"We're always looking to find balance in our offense because as an offense, you're more difficult to defend if the defense has to defend run, pass on every series in every situation."
The Patriots are 31st in the league, averaging 68.5 rushing yards per game, while their DVOA isn't much better, coming in at 22nd. A deeper dive into Football Outsiders' stats reveal an offense that ranks 31st in the number of runs that are stuffed at the line of scrimmage and 30th in second-level yards. They're barely getting out of the backfield and even when they do, they're not getting much else.
Coming into the season it was hoped that a veteran offensive line and a promising stable of backs could be more productive, but there are plenty to areas to look at when assessing why they haven't yet lived up to expectations.
"There's not one thing that triggers success in the running game," said McDaniels. "The running game is much like pass protection, there's a lot of reasons why we would have success... The point of attack is important because those are the guys that we're running behind. The run read by the runner is important because he'll ultimately make a decision where the ball is going to go. The force blocking by the receivers, as we've seen is important to any running game because if you don't go down there and get a safety who's down in the box it's going to be tough to run the ball without him making a lot of tackles. Then there's deciding what runs to run, that could come from us on the sideline or it could come from the line of scrimmage.
"We have to execute our assignment first, we have to get a hat on a hat and we have to give ourselves an opportunity to get the run started. If we can do that a lot of times you'll live with the result."
After James White was placed on Injured Reserve last week, the Patriots lost their most proven and reliable back. White was often praised as always knowing the right thing to do, as a valuable resource in a young positional group. Now McDaniels must lean more heavily on younger players like J.J. Taylor and Rhamondre Stevenson, both of whom have had fumbles early in the season.
"There's nothing more important than the ball," said McDaniels. "Some of the best lessons come from some adversities that we have to face. This isn't the first time we've had a back put the ball on the ground and have to respond to it. The nature of the position, they have the ball more than any other player on the field other than the quarterback. A lot of times, at some point over multiple carries, they end up with somebody trying to punch or strip at the football.
"These are hard lessons to learn at times but also I'd say they're necessary for their growth and development. We know how important turnovers are to wins and losses in our league. They have to respect that part of their job, which I know they do. But now you go through a few situations where it could impact the team in a negative situation in a game, you hope that that resonates with them as they move forward and practice and work on those techniques and fundamentals that are obviously going to be paramount to those players playing and playing a big role moving forward."
Just four games into the season, there's still a long way to go and Taylor and Stevenson will be called on again to carry the ball and help elevate an offense that could really use a complementary ground game to assist in a young quarterback's development.
"I still have a lot of confidence in those guys, believe me, every back I've ever coached has fumbled," said McDaniels. "They have great attitudes about it and they'll handle their business and approach it the right way."
Monday's Leftover Quotes of Note
Dont'a Hightower on the defense's progress:
"There were plays that we didn't make in the past that we obviously feel like we should've made... We all feel like we're moving in the right direction and we're doing the right things, we just need a little more continuity."
Matthew Slater on the team's performance against the Bucs:
"We feel like we competed in the right way. We're still not making all the plays we need to make to get in the win category. As many positives as you can take away, it's still tough when you lose a game. Young Mac showed some great poise, some great toughness, our guys played really hard. Any time you can limit a Tom Brady team to that amount of points I think it's a job well done. There were some positives, some things that we can build upon, let's just hope we can build upon them quickly."
N'Keal Harry on how the Pats fans turned out on Sunday night:
"The whole atmosphere of the game was crazy in general. The fans really gave us a home field advantage with the way they came out."