Improved Ground Game Can Fix Patriots' Problems

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Improved Ground Game Can Fix Patriots' Problems
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

If you want a simple way to sum up the New England Patriots' problems on offense this season, the number "three" would be a good place to start—or more specifically, third downs and third quarters.

It also wouldn't be a stretch to connect those struggles to the departure of No. 83 this past offseason.

The third-down struggles were to be expected when the Pats lost four of Tom Brady's top five third-down targets from 2010-2012. The only one remaining, Rob Gronkowski, just returned to action last weekend.

The Patriots have gone from the best offense on third down in 2012 (48.7 percent) to the fifth worst (33.3 percent). Their issues were most glaring in their two losses this season, where they went 1-of-12 on third down in both contests.

Perhaps the only area the Pats have been worse is in the third quarter, where they have yet to score a touchdown in seven games and have just three field goals. They are the only team in the NFL without a third-quarter touchdown.

Let's take a closer look at these two areas and how the Patriots might be able to make three a magic number once again for themselves.

 

 

Patriots Offense: Third-Quarter Performance
2013 2010-2012
Yards Per Play 3.94 (31st) 6.43 (Second)
1st Down Percentage 19.6% (30th) 35.4% (First)
Touchdowns 0 (32nd) 45 (First)

Pro-Football-Reference.com

Brutal Second-Half Starts

The Patriots are well aware of their struggles in the third quarter.

/Getty Images
Tom Brady threw a pick-six in the second play of the third quarter against the Jets.

Josh McDaniels had this to say on Tuesday on a conference call with reporters:

The third quarter has been an area that we haven’t done very well in, and we’re going to need to certainly focus a lot of our attention on that, and come out and have a good idea of what we want to do and execute our offense the same way in the third quarter that we try to do in every other quarter.

What happens in the locker room at half time that causes the Pats to come out so flat in the second half? One potential answer is that they become too focused on throwing the ball and turn their attention away from running it.

From 2010-2012, the Patriots ran the ball fourth most in the NFL during the third quarter. They also had the second-most rushing touchdowns and the most rushing first downs.

This season, they are 18th in third-quarter rushing attempts, last in rushing touchdowns (zero) and 30th in third-quarter rushing first downs.

Comparatively, they are 11th overall this season in rushing attempts and yards per carry. 

In their two losses, the Patriots had just eight rushing attempts combined in the third quarters, and seven of them went for four yards or less. This doesn't inspire confidence that handing the ball off more is the answer, but their passing numbers in the third quarter are even worse.

Brady has the third-worst yards per attempt in the NFL during the third quarter (5.1) and the fourth-worst quarterback rating (54.4) of the 48 qualifying quarterbacks who have thrown more than 20 third-quarter passes.

Any way you slice it, the Pats are dreadful in the third quarter and must find a way to take the pressure off Brady and the passing game.

 

Patriots Offense: Third-Down Conversion Rate
2013 2010 - 2012
1-5 Yards 42% 66%
6-10 Yards 31% 39%
11+ Yards 14% 18%

Pro-Football-Reference.com

Third DownWhere Games Are Won or Lost 

If you were to point to an area where Brady misses Wes Welker the most, it's on third down. 

/Getty Images
In his six-year career with the Patriots, Welker was targeted by Brady an astounding 227 times on third down. The second-most targeted? Randy Moss with just 97 targets.

Since 2010, Gronkowski has become another reliable third-down target for Brady, grabbing 41 third-down catches, 16 for touchdowns. His return should provide a boost in this area, but in his first game back. he came up with just one catch on third-down targets.

Brady must be careful not to depend too much on Gronkowski, as defenses are sure to make him the focal point to take away on third down.

Brady has had trouble finding another reliable third-down target. Julian Edelman leads the way with 12 catches on 17 targets, while Aaron Dobson, Danny Amendola and Kenbrell Thompkins have all been targeted 10 or more times as well.

However, Dobson has caught just five of 12 targets, while Thompkins has caught just two of 10. Amendola had seven third-down catches against the Buffalo Bills in Week 1 but hasn't had another one since.

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Again, it appears these struggles can be traced back to the run game. The Patriots are throwing at a far greater rate on third down with five or less yards to go. With the unproven receiving weapons that have surrounded Brady for most of the year, this makes little sense.

Brady has also been sacked in these situations four times, tied for most in the NFL.

As you can see in the chart above, the biggest drop in third-down conversions has been on these five-yards-or-less plays.

From 2010-2012, the Patriots ran the ball 40 percent of the time in these situations and successfully converted 59 percent of them. This year, they're running only 28 percent of the time and converting just 43 percent.

Granted, injuries to Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley have factored into the drop in running plays on short-yardage third downs, but with Ridley back and Vereen slated to return in a couple of weeks, the Pats should recommit to the ground game.

 

/Getty Images

It's About Attitude

The Pats' struggles this year and huge drop in statistical measurements make it hard to believe that they are still in first place in the AFC East at 5-2. But when you dig deeper, it appears that the fixes are not major adjustments. A big chunk of the problems can be fixed as soon as Gronkowski, Amendola, Ridley and Vereen return to action and get back up to speed.

Another big part? Center Ryan Wendell and right guard Dan Connolly must bounce back from poor starts that find them ranked by ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required) as the worst two offensive players on the Patriots. 

Another issue is the team's attitude. When New England can't convert short third downs and consistently performs poorly in the second half, it's often reflective of a soft team that isn't competing in the most critical moments of the game.

That is rarely an issue for the Bill Belichick-coached Pats.

If the Patriots can find that attitude and return to their ways of dominating on the ground, the effect could transform this team and take some of the burden off Brady and the passing game.

A balanced team is always the hardest to beat, but a physical team that can pick up the crucial yards at the crucial times wins Super Bowls.

 

Statistics and rankings courtesy of Pro Football Reference

Mike Dussault is a Patriots Featured Columnist and also writes and edits PatsPropaganda.com.  

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