The Patriots rode a dominant run game to their sixth championship title last season, featuring iconic plays like Rex Burkhead's overtime touchdown in the AFC Championship and Sony Michel's touchdown in Super Bowl 53, the only of the game for either team.
In Do Your Job 3, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels discussed in depth how focusing on the ground game and getting away from their preferred spread offensive tactics was the major turning point in the season. The results spoke for themselves, but this offseason it was clear that change was coming.
Rob Gronkowski retired, while Trent Brown and Dwayne Allen departed in free agency. Then, as the 2019 season got underway, positions that had been a point of strength the previous year continued to face casualties. David Andrews, Isaiah Wynn and James Develin have ended up on Injured Reserve and now, through three games, the Patriots ground game is stuck near the bottom of the league in most rushing categories.
Not only have they been inconsistent, ranking 18th in Football Outsiders DVOA, they've lacked explosive plays with their longest run coming in at just 12 yards (30th in the NFL). A deeper dive into the statistics shows a dramatic drop off from last season.
|2018 Reg. Season||2018 Playoffs||2019 Reg. Season (3 games)|
|Yards-per-Carry||4.3 (20th)||4.3 (5th)||3.2 (28th)|
|Yards-per-Game||127.3 (5th)||161.7 (1st)||97.0 (20th)|
|Rushes over 10 yards||55 (5th)||11 (1st)||4 (29th)|
Can the ground game get on track? McDaniels isn't interested in trying to recreate what they did last year.
"I think the goal for us is not to replicate what we did last year; it's to try to figure out how we can be the best version of ourselves this year with the personnel that we have playing and available for us each week this season," the offensive coordinator said on Tuesday.
Instead, it's the same process they underwent last season, finding their strengths and playing to them.
"We're not going to try to force somebody to do something that somebody else did last year if they're not suited for it," said McDaniels. "We'll try to figure out how to use their strengths to their advantage and to our team's advantage, and try to go out there and be productive offensively with what we have now."
A big part of that will be figuring out what to do now without James Develin, a fixture of last year's offensive shift, who was placed on IR on Monday with a neck injury. Bill Belichick stopped short of calling Develin irreplaceable, but he wasn't far off.
"There's no one person that can do what he does," Belichick said. "You might replace him with one person on one particular thing but offensively and the kicking game and some of the other roles that he has in those areas as well, not just our first down offense and goal line but, again, when you add all of those together, he has a number of different roles on our team including the kicking game."
With the potential return of Ben Watson next week, and the continued development of an offensive line with new pieces at left tackle and center, perhaps with the eventual return of Isaiah Wynn, there are reasons for optimism that the ground game could get going. It might look different than last year, but they can still find ways to more effectively run the ball than they have the first three games of the season.
"None of us are worried about what we did last year or schemes we used," said McDaniels. "We're just trying to figure out the best positions to try to put our players in this season, and in particular this week against a really good defense that we're playing against on the road, against Buffalo."
Mayo praises Jamie Collins
Through three weeks, Jamie Collins is the only player in the NFL with two or more sacks, interceptions and passes defended, illustrating how he's been the best player on the Patriots defense, a defense that still has yet to give up a touchdown. Jerod Mayo spent three seasons with Collins as a player, and now, as his linebackers coach, Mayo was impressed by how Collins has taken his game to the next level.
"Jamie is a very smart guy," Mayo told reporters. "He's able to recognize a lot of different things, a lot of different plays. He studies a lot of film, and he's played well for us up until this point. So, he's definitely a smart guy. I think that really helps him. As far as game planning is concerned, one week he's on the outside, the next week he's on the inside, so it goes back to his versatility, just being able to play different positions, and he's making big plays at all of them. So, definitely great to have a guy like Jamie."
Conference Call Sound Bites
Bill Belichick on Jerod Mayo's first season as a coach:
"Jerod's done a great job. His experience as a player in our system is very valuable. We can talk about calls that we can make on the field or identifications and so forth and his perspective of, 'Yeah, that's no problem. That'd be easy. That's easy for us to do,' or 'That's a lot harder because the player is thinking about 'this', he's thinking about 'that' and so forth.' It makes us re-think and have that perspective of how easy it is or isn't for a player in certain situations. He's done it and he's done it under pressure and dealt with a lot of things we currently deal with and so that's a good perspective to have in the room. We don't have that from anybody else defensively. But as far as adapting to the coaching lifestyle and so forth, Jerod's done a great job."