Tom Brady and the Pats offense have a long ways to go.
Following a highly unusual offseason, the New England Patriots have experienced a similarly topsy-turvy start to the regular season.
Whereas average records but promising play have characterized the team's start in recent seasons, the 2013 Patriots own a shiny 4-1 facade to hide a rather disturbing underbelly.
And as in previous seasons, one excellent unit on one side of the ball has dragged up one of the league's worst on the other side. However, as Pats fans know, it is the offense that has looked shockingly ordinary this season, hampered by injuries and inexperience. And unlike in past seasons, when a historically prolific offense could carry the team, this defense is good enough to compete but not necessarily shoulder the entire burden.
Thus, the onus falls on the offense to "begin pulling its weight," as Tom Brady bluntly admitted after scoring just six points against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday—New England's lowest output since a 21-0 loss to the Dolphins in 2006 that was marred by accusations of cadence-stealing.
Indeed, with the offense falling so spectacularly short of expectations, there is certainly a noticeable theme to this list.
As counter-intuitive as it seems, this week's results against the New Orleans Saints will not be particularly important. No one wants to lose of course, but a first-half game against an NFC opponent is about as harmless of a loss that a team could suffer.
More important is that the Patriots demonstrate marked improvement in key areas and reveal some discernible hope of potentially fulfilling Patriots fans' "Super Bowl-or-bust" mentality.
With that in mind, here are the five areas in most immediate need of improvement.
*Unless otherwise noted, all stats courtesy Pro Football Focus' premium section (subscription required).
Admittedly, this is a bit nit-picky, as the Patriots' offensive line has compiled the fifth-highest cumulative grade in the league thus far. However, as the Bengals exposed last week, New England's line does have a well-renowned Achilles heel that has proven fatal in past playoff defeats.
As I feared before their Week 5 contest in Cincinnati, the Patriots were unable to contain Geno Atkins and the Bengals' other interior rushers from collapsing the pocket and getting near Tom Brady's feet. Interior pressure is essentially the only proven factor in shutting down Brady, and the Bengals wisely guessed pass nearly every time the Pats tried to run play action. Consequently, when the plodding LeGarrette Blount was unable to make Cincy pay with his legs, the Patriots had no chance on offense.
The general consensus before the season was that Dan Connolly was the line's weakest link, a notion that the 31-year-old has resoundingly confirmed thus far. Connolly was passable last season, but he has turned in a ghastly minus-6.8 performance so far this year, including a minus-9.6 pass protection grade that is fourth-worst among all guards. Besides Connolly, center Ryan Wendell has also turned in a minus-4.8 pass protection grade, making for shaky A-gap protection on the right side.
The Saints do not present nearly as significant a threat in this regard, as Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette, their two primary pass-rushers, both do their work on the edges. However, when the Patriots run into more physical foes like the Jets and Ravens, it would behoove them to afford Brady more than a modicum of space to step into.
When the Pats signed Leon Washington this offseason, many believed that the league's No. 2 kick returner in 2012 would boost a rather ordinary New England return game. However, hampered by injuries, Washington has returned just one kick this year, leaving Blount as the league's most curious return man.
Many have overlooked this aspect of special teams in years past because the Patriots have always possessed an offense so prolific that field position was largely irrelevant. But with a sputtering unit, the importance of good starting field position becomes magnified.
Last year, Washington averaged roughly 5.5 more yards per return than primary Pats return man Devin McCourty. Using Football Outsiders' ratings and estimations, that provided the Seahawks seven extra points over the course of a season. That does not sound like much, but consider how the Seahawks have struggled to replace Washington's production this year, leading to a kickoff return that has cost them two points already.
As Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry and Kevin Meers illustrated, point expectancy does shift with such a drastic improvement in the kickoff return. The Patriots thought they would be receiving that boost in 2013, and with an offense in desperate need of a jumpstart, it's not too late for Washington to make an impact this season.
This is a blunt and unambiguous area. With a scheme predicated on short rhythm-based passing, the Patriots' receivers cannot afford to continue letting drops put the offense behind schedule.
Thus far, four Patriots have dropped at least three passes, more than any other team. In many ways, these drops are obscuring the encouraging progress the receivers have made in establishing a rhythm with Brady.
Back in Week 3, I noted how Kenbrell Thompkins, in particular, had made noticeable progress from a rough first two weeks. Unfortunately, Patriots fans seemingly skip a heartbeat every time Thompkins makes an awkward bobbling catch, despite being in excellent position.
This week, the Patriots are facing a Saints defense coached by nemesis Rob Ryan. This particular Ryan twin is not nearly as well-renowned as a Patriots-stopper, but as coordinator for the Browns and Cowboys, Ryan concocted schemes that have limited the Pats to 14 and 20 points, respectively, in the past.
Recently, Sports Illustrated's Doug Farrar broke down how Ryan's 3-4 pressure-based scheme that has allowed the Saints' athletic front-seven playmakers to turn around the team's defense this season. Farrar notes how the Saints played a 3-3-5 nickel package against the Bears multi-receiver sets, something we might see them frequently employ against the Pats this Sunday.
New Orleans' blitz-heavy tendencies mean that Patriots receivers should draw one-on-one matchups they are capable of winning. But this Sunday, finishing the catch will be more important than ever if the Pats hope to execute a chain-moving offense that keeps Drew Brees and Co. on the sideline.
Last year, many hailed the Patriots offense for returning to a balanced run-pass distribution that could beat defenses on the ground as well as through the air.
However, Ridley is down to 11.5 percent on 47 attempts in 2013, with just one run gaining more than 15 yards. This comes with a small sample size caveat—for instance, Blount's huge 47-yard touchdown has inflated his breakaway percentage to 39.5 percent this season. However, it's clear that defenses are honing in on Ridley more in 2013, as he no longer has the luxury of facing light boxes while opponents scheme to stop the passing game.
As much as Rob Gronkowski's return should help the team's most glaring weakness (see next slide), his ability to draw linebackers and safeties should also aid Ridley and the other Pats backs in this area. And, of course, that says nothing about Gronkowski's history as arguably the best blocking tight end in the league.
This week is a prime opportunity to re-establish the ground game, because despite their overall improvement, the Saints still rank a mediocre 18th in run defense with a plus-3.9 grade.
As the Bengals illustrated, teams are biting less on the Pats' play action because the threat of the running game is not really there. When Ridley and Shane Vereen return to health, they must once again make New England a two-dimensional offense.
This is a no-brainer, and this issue has been, by far, the most destructive part of the Patriots' offensive decline.
Per ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss, the Patriots have fallen from a league-leading 70 percent red-zone touchdown percentage in 2012 to a 35 percent rate this season that eclipses only the miserable Jacksonville Jaguars. Seeing Brady target the likes of Matthew Mulligan and Nate Solder in the end zone underscores the dearth of reliable targets near the goal-line.
As alluded to earlier, Rob Gronkowski's impending return should bolster the red-zone production, though he is not a cure-all panacea. Still, since his debut in 2010, Gronk has scored seven more red-zone touchdowns than the next closest receiver, according to Pro-Football-Reference, totaling 33 of them in 48 career games. When your 6'7" tight end is receiving jump balls instead of Solder and Julian Edelman, that can only help.
New Orleans has actually given up touchdowns on 61.5 percent of opponent's red-zone possessions this year, a mark that ranks just 22nd in the league. That number does warrant a disclaimer, though, since the Saints only allow 2.6 red-zone possessions per game, which is the eighth-best mark in the league. It's not breaking news, but when the Pats do venture their way into the red zone, scoring six is an absolute must.
And in regards to red-zone offense, improvement in this area could actually cure most of New England's offensive woes. Per TeamRankings.com, the Pats are 12th in red-zone scoring attempts per game, and their 18.1 yards per point mark indicates an offense than can move the ball, albeit one that has not converted that into a proportional amount on the scoreboard.
In actuality, the Patriots are probably something like an above-average offense that has made enough crucial errors to drop them into below-average territory. With reinforcements and better execution, (particularly in the red zone), the Patriots could finally field an offense that is capable of supporting a vastly improved defense.