The New England Patriots offense has been much-maligned this season, especially its revamped passing game that has been inconsistent at best. Yes, injuries and departures have made the weapons around Tom Brady almost unrecognizable, and while some struggles in the pass game were to be expected, the running game has also gone cold in some of the biggest moments this season.
Heading into the season, the four-back tandem of Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden figured to be one of the most versatile and dangerous in the NFL. But an injury to Shane Vereen, after a stellar performance in Week 1, and a knee injury to Stevan Ridley, which kept him out of action against the Bengals, have left the Pats shorthanded.
The running game needed to be a crutch while the passing game developed this season, and while its overall performance has been solid, the inability to pick up a critical yard on the ground in nearly every game has been a recurring problem.
Let's take a look at three egregious examples, all coming in crunch time.
Example No. 1: Patriots 17, Bills 21
Situation: third quarter, 4:54 remaining. 3rd-and-goal from the Buffalo 1.
Midway through the second half, the Patriots have the chance to take the lead from Buffalo's one-yard line. Since Bill Belichick took over in New England, the Pats have scored a touchdown 79 percent of the time in this situation when they run the ball.
But Shane Vereen was stuffed here, after seemingly getting to the one-yard line untouched, with a stiff blow from the Bills defenders that stopped him dead in his tracks before he could cross the goal line.
This forced the Pats to go for it on fourth down. In this situation, the Bill Belichick Pats score a touchdown on seven out of nine attempts, or 78 percent. But here Tom Brady and Ryan Wendell fumbled the snap exchange, and the Bills recovered.
The Pats would get another chance and ultimately win the game, but this could've been a costly failure—and one the Pats have traditionally converted into six points. It was a sign in the first game of the season of the troubles to come.
Example No. 2: Patriots 30, Falcons 23
Situation: fourth quarter, 2:00 remaining. 3rd-and-1 from the Atlanta 37.
One yard is all that stood in between the Patriots sealing a win over the Falcons.
On third down, LeGarrette Blount was stopped for no gain. Blount didn't have much chance on the play, as center Ryan Wendell was pushed into the backfield, effectively stopping Blount and giving him nowhere to run.
Brady tried a QB sneak on fourth down but fumbled it, and Atlanta recovered.
The Patriots were lucky to get a fourth-down deflected pass by Aqib Talib in their own end zone to preserve the win. Otherwise, their failure to close out the win when they had the ball would've been far more criticized.
Example No. 3: Patriots 3, Bengals 13
Situation: fourth quarter, 7:18 remaining. 1st-and-goal from the Cincinnati 1.
The Patriots' first trip of the day into the Bengals' red zone after Danny Amendola's 16-yard catch took them down to the one-yard line. With a chance to close the lead to just three points, LeGarrette Blount is stuffed on first down.
Sebastian Vollmer was unable to reach Geno Atkins, who quickly moved down the line to take away any chance Blount had of going downhill. The left side of the Patriots line was also unable to get any push or open any holes for Blount.
Two Brady incompletions later and the Patriots had to settle for a field goal.
For the second time in two weeks, it was a failure to win in the trenches that kept the Pats from picking up a necessary yard.
Problems of Execution or Desire?
All of these sample plays were critical situations where the Pats had a chance to turn up the heat on their opponents. And in all instances they were stopped short.
And it's not even just these important plays. For the season, the Patriots have picked up a first down on just 47.6 percent of the runs with one-to-three yards to go.
From 2010-2012, they got a first down for 66.4 percent of those runs.
Overall, the Pats are ranked 14th in the NFL in both rushing yards per game and yards per carry but rank 27th with just one rushing touchdown on the season.
Adding to the short-yardage problem were two fumbles by Tom Brady, one of which came on a clear QB sneak against the Falcons, something he has been considered one of the best at.
Scott Kacsmar of SI.com wrote before the season:
In his career, on third- and fourth-down plays in the regular season with either one or two yards to make for a first down, Brady is an incredible 88-for-91. That's a 96.7 percent success rate. He has not been stopped in the regular season since 2005, a mind-boggling stretch of 56 straight short-yardage conversions.
The offensive line can take a fair share of the criticism; after all, it is the only part of the offense outside of Brady that hasn't been hit by injuries. The offensive line's failures in these big moments is disconcerting, because getting one yard is not about running the right route or hanging onto the ball—it's about will.
There's enough blame to go around though, as the problem has been consistent through five games this season. The offensive line, running backs and quarterbacks have all failed to deliver in certain instances.
The execution can certainly improve, but the Patriots offense still needs to prove they are finishers who can convert in the "gotta have it" moments. And it must be a group effort.
Mike Dussault is a Patriots Featured Columnist and also writes and edits PatsPropaganda.com.