The Patriots should finally show us their true intentions on the direction of their offense in Sunday's regular-season opener against the Dolphins.
Over the summer, a major storyline was a noticeable emphasis on an outside zone rushing attack that resembled Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, and the west-coast coaching tree.
Although the coaching staff was preaching repetitions over results in the preseason, the results weren't always there for New England on the ground. Despite having strong individual run-blockers and a two-headed monster at running back, the Pats struggled with outside zone.
On 17 outside zone runs during the preseason, the Patriots offense managed just 45 yards for an average of 2.6 yards per rush attempt. New England also failed to register a run of ten-plus yards and was stuffed on 11.8 percent of those runs.
However, the flip side is that the Patriots were much better at running their old-school gap plays, averaging over 5.2 yards per rush with four explosive runs on 26 man or power-blocking schemes, according to Pro Football Focus.
With the results speaking for themselves, the question is, will we still see more outside zone schemes, or will the Patriots pivot back to their downhill rushing attack when the games start to count?
"We're pretty confident in our run game. That's all I'll say. We're pretty confident in it," Patriots running back Rhamondre Stevenson said this week. "The beginning of camp, we were working a lot on the run game and seeing what we needed to fix, things like that. But now a week away, I feel like we got – we're pretty confident in our run game."
Between Stevenson and teammate Damien Harris, running the football should be a strength for the Patriots offense in 2022. Last season, New England ranked seventh-best in both Football Outsiders' DVOA metric and expected points added (EPA) per rush attempt.
The sluggish preseason for the Patriots rushing attack could be explained by the shuffling along the offensive line and emphasizing a different base scheme. Mike Onwenu will start at right guard after the team traded away longtime starter Shaq Mason, the Pats drafted first-round pick Cole Strange to play left guard, and flipped starters Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn at tackle.
But after weeks of training camp and padded practices, New England hopes that all the hard work pays off and a game-plan approach will get things going on the ground.
"We can game plan and do different things. Really it comes down to execution, and we'll clean up some things here today and Friday. We have a great group of backs, and we'll try to get them going," Patriots center and team captain David Andrews said on Thursday.
Along with finding a rhythm in the running game, the Patriots new-look offensive line will also be tested right out of the gate by the Miami Dolphins' blitz-heavy defensive scheme.
The Dolphins are changing their offensive system under new head coach Mike McDaniel. But McDaniel retained defensive coordinator Josh Boyer, and Miami has a lot of carryover personnel-wise. For those reasons, the Pats can expect a similar approach from the Dolphins defense.
Last season, Miami had the second-highest blitz rate in the NFL at over 39 percent and was among the league leaders in cover-zero blitzes.
"They have a great pressure package. There's obviously a lot of carry over on the defensive staff and players, so it's going to be a big challenge," Andrews said. "They do a really good job of that, doing different looks and creating a lot of issues. Today is a big day [at practice] with third down being an emphasis."
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick about the uncertainties from a coaching standpoint in Week 1. With teams calling basic plays and often hiding their more creative stuff, the preseason is only a small indication of what will happen schematically when the Patriots play the Dolphins on Sunday.
"Opening day is opening day. Nobody is really showing much in preseason. The cards will be on the table on Sunday. Like every opening game, I'm sure we'll have to make some adjustments once we see what they're doing and vice versa. That's always the way it is. So you have to leave room for a little bit of the unknown, things that they've been working on that they haven't shown," Belichick explained.
For the Patriots, one of the biggest unknowns is how different New England's offense will look after showing some noteworthy changes over the summer.