After a tough outing in Buffalo that saw the offense produce just nine points, the Patriots continue to search for their offensive identity this season. Last year they rode a power running game all the way to a Super Bowl title, but so far neither the running game nor the passing game have given them any kind of consistent production.
Since racing out to a 20-0 lead over the Jets in Week 3, the Patriots have had just four drives that went more than five plays. Nine times they've gone three-and-out, with 16 total punts and producing just 19 points in seven quarters of football. While the defense has been dominant, no one quite knows what to make of the offense just yet, especially since Julian Edelman was hurt.
The process of finding and focusing on their strengths in relation to opponent's weaknesses is an ongoing process. Bill Belichick broke down what the coaching staff is asking themselves every week to find their identity on his conference call with the media on Tuesday.
"What are the things that we do well? How do they matchup against our opponents? What are the things that we're not doing well? Do we want to invest more time in those and with the expectation that they're going to be better, or is it time to invest our time in something else that's either do more of what we're doing or come up with a different scheme or a different ID and try to work on that? Those are coaching decisions that are really critical decisions every week for us," relayed Belichick.
It really shouldn't be all that surprising that this edition of the Patriots hasn't come out knowing exactly who they are and what they can do right from opening night. Impact players from last year are long gone, while the injury hits to their replacements and others have resulted in new starters at center, left tackle, fullback and tight end. Then there was the injury to Julian Edelman that limited him against the Bills.
In all, the Patriots have 10 players on Injured Reserve already, matching the number they had over the entire course of 2018.
Outside of potential trades that everyone loves to speculate about, there are reinforcements already in house who could help. Isaiah Wynn, James Develin and rookie receiver N'Keal Harry could be eligible to return off of IR.
Most immediately, tight end Ben Watson is eligible to return from suspension this week.
Watson's experience and ability as a pass catcher could be a welcome addition for a group of receiving weapons that have struggled to make consistent plays. He could absolutely make an instant difference at a position where the team has gotten just four receptions total in four games.
"Ben's a versatile guy, he's a smart guy," said Josh McDaniels. "He's certainly made a lot of plays in his career. Just gives an element of speed and experience at the tight end position. He's been a productive guy, made plays under pressure. So, Ben's coming back here; it was great to have him back this offseason into training camp, and hopefully we'll be able to move forward with him in a role that suits his skillset and our team."
That leaves the running game, ranked 21st in Football Outsiders' DVOA, 28th in yards-per-carry and 24th in yards-per-game, as the most uncertain element of the offense so far, but there were some bright spots to take away from an otherwise lackluster rushing performance in Buffalo.
"We're not where we want to be in any area of our offense at this moment, and we're going to continue to try to get better at each one of those," said McDaniels. "We've always said the running game is really a team play. We've got to have good communication about the front and set the distribution of blockers properly, and receivers did a much better job – really did a good job of springing it back on some of our blocks in the secondary in this game. And then we need the fullback to do his job and the back to run hard. So, there's a lot of things that go into productive runs."
Per Mike Garafolo, the team waived offensive tackle Caleb Benenoch on Tuesday afternoon, opening up a roster spot that potentially could go to Ben Watson. Benenoch just signed on September 18th and did not dress for a game.
The Patriots also announced a series of roster moves, including the release of Benenoch they also released Scooby Wright from the practice squad and Cam Meredith from the PUP. There should be some new faces at practice on Wednesday.
In case you missed it, here was Monday's film review of the Pats-Bills game, however you can't truly see everything until the All-22 comes out on Tuesday, so here's some quick notes from a third and final look at the game from the big eye in the sky.
- There's been plenty of love for the linebackers but the front defensive linemen have really been outstanding this year. Lawrence Guy, Danny Shelton and Adam Butler have been doing the every-down dirty work and while they might not be flashing off the stat sheet they are the ones making it easier for the linebackers to fly around and make plays. Here's what Bill Belichick had to say about Lawrence Guy on Tuesday: "Lawrence has been a good player for us since he got here, both on and off the field. He gives us great leadership, toughness, effort, preparation. He's played end, he's played tackle, he's played on the nose, he's lined up in different gaps and had different responsibilities. He's a very versatile player that can play a number of different spots and I think that he's worked very hard on his pass rush and that's certainly improved in the time that he's been here."
- There were plays to be made for Buffalo had Josh Allen known where to throw the ball. On J.C. Jackson's first interception, Elandon Roberts had fallen down, leaving Frank Gore wide open in the flat. Had Allen been able to make the dumpoff pass instead of forcing a short throw downfield it might've gone for a touchdown.
- Allen looked light years more comfortable on the first drive of the second half with short, easy passes to his backs and check downs. Those are the kind of plays the Patriots defense should expect to see more of and it's hard to know why they weren't more prevalent for Buffalo early on. Forcing the Patriots linebackers to cover backs, instead of keeping the backs in and allowing the linebackers to blitz is a key game plan point, especially when they can get matched up on Bentley or Roberts.
- Buffalo's fast linebackers really gave the Patriots offensive linemen problems in the run game, they were just too quick on the second level for the blocker to get out to them and they would close and finish off the running back before anyone could block them. It's weird to see this lack of athleticism, especially out of Thuney and Mason who have been as athletic as interior linemen come. It isn't all terrible, it's just inconsistent from player to player, play to play.
- The third-and-2 goal line stop for a loss early in the fourth quarter was all Guy and Butler, bursting through the line and blowing the rushing play up. Again, those two are really getting it done upfront and their play at the goal line in this game was something we hadn't seen before this season. Nice to see the defense come through in such a critical situation. It should give confidence and pay dividends.
- Kyle Van Noy was all over the place in this game, doing a little of everything but most importantly making plays on the ball. Between him and Collins it was fun to see two athletic linebackers who can do it all.