At 9-3, the New England Patriots can clinch their 11th AFC East title in the past 13 seasons as soon as this weekend. With a fairly manageable closing quarter, the Patriots should also lock down their fourth consecutive first-round bye, an incredibly impressive streak in today's NFL.
Of course, simply reaching January is not the Patriots' goal. Higher standards beget less room for error, and unfortunately, massive attrition has eliminated most of New England's allotted wiggle room for 2013. That's reflected in the Patriots' nine one-possession contests this year, already tied for most in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era.
Whether Pats fans like it or not, New England is the type of team that is going to play these heart-stopping games through the postseason. When the margin between wins and losses is so razor-thin, it magnifies every small aspect of a team.
Thus, even though the Patriots do not have a ton of eye-popping flaws, there are multiple areas where even small steps forward could make an enormous difference in a month. Starting with the team's potential Achilles' heel, here are three areas in which the Pats must show some improvement before the postseason.
The Patriots rank 26th in opponents' yards per carry, but it's not the play-to-play defense that's worrisome. By its very nature, running the ball is usually a low-variance outcome, meaning that something like a missed tackle usually only makes a difference of a few yards (as opposed to a blown coverage, which can lead to much more).
As I noted a couple weeks ago, the Patriots have actually held up reasonably well on the vast majority of opponents' rushing attempts. The problems lied in increased big plays, defined as carries that went for 15 or more yards. That trend has grown even worse—in three games since the bye, New England has conceded eight runs of at least 15 yards.
The last two games have been especially discouraging. The Patriots are undersized in the middle now, but they can get by with fundamentally sound play. Unfortunately, their run defense has been anything but sound.
Take a peek at this Ben Tate 20-yard touchdown run from last week against the Houston Texans, a play the Patriots could have stopped with better fundamentals:
Looking at the pre-snap defense, we can see the Pats were in a 3-4 base defense, with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich as the outside linebackers. Duron Harmon was also in the box to play the tight end, which gave New England eight bodies against seven Texans blockers:
About a second later, practically everything went wrong for the Pats. Chandler and Chris Jones both lost immediately, getting shoved out wide by the left side of the Houston line. The fatal error occurred with Dont'a Hightower, who got pushed backward on the play and could not fill the gap created at the line:
Brandon Spikes ran into Hightower trying to chase the play, but Devin McCourty still had a chance to stop him in the secondary. Granted, this was a difficult tackle to make in the open field, but for someone who has only missed four tackles all year according to Pro Football Focus, the effort was a bit disappointing.
The Pats have had trouble setting edges and getting off blocks the past two weeks, a death knell for a run defense. But before you throw your hands up and attribute these problems to a lack of skill, know that the Patriots have had success in their base defense as recently as three weeks ago.
Against Carolina, New England held Panthers running backs to just 41 yards on 16 carries, or 2.6 yards per carry. Facing all other teams, Carolina backs have averaged 4.0 yards per rush. Playing the majority of the game in base defense, the Pats demonstrated sound execution on traditional running plays.
Here's a similar play to the Tate touchdown from above. Notice how Isaac Sopoaga wins decisively, throwing one of the Panthers blockers to the ground. That clogs up the middle and gives DeAngelo Williams a lot less initial space:
A second later, it appears there might be a bit of space for Williams to run. But Chandler Jones wins against the fullback, closing the hole and allowing Brandon Spikes to shoot through and stuff Williams for one yard:
The Patriots do not have anyone capable of dominating on an every-play basis like they did with Wilfork. But it's not asking too much for the front seven to hold its gaps and simply let the numbers advantage play to its favor, especially in base defense. A series of four- and five-yard runs will not hurt New England over the long haul, but cutting down on the big plays is a must.
Who's in the Backfield?
The run defense may be the only glaring liability, but the run offense could turn into a similar problem if Stevan Ridley truly is in the doghouse. There's no sense in expounding further upon Ridley's fumbling issues—they are a matter of technique and have to stop immediately.
Without Ridley, the Patriots might be a one-dimensional offense. Ridley has missed two games—last week's benching, plus Week 5 at Cincinnati when a knee injury sidelined him. Here is how the Patriots have fared on the ground in those two games:
|Patriots' Run Production without Ridley|
|Week 5 (@CIN)||18||82||4.5||2||0|
|Week 13 (@HOU)||27||88||3.2||2||2|
Oof. Both games were tightly contested throughout, but Tom Brady attempted 42 passes in each game because the inconsistency of the run game warranted the shift. The lack of a run game particularly hurt in the Cincinnati Bengals game, as the combination of a bullying Cincy front seven and no Gronk (not to mention a late-game monsoon) made passing nearly impossible.
Shane Vereen has done well in limited carries this season, but it's clear the Patriots do not view him as a true lead back. According to ESPNBoston's Mike Reiss, Vereen played 41 out of 70 snaps against Houston, a high number for the backfield-by-committee Pats. And yet, Vereen only received 10 carries—fewer than LeGarrette Blount, who only played 20 snaps.
Patriots fans already understand that Ridley is the Patriots' best back, but if anyone needs anymore evidence, a juxtaposition of these two eerily similar plays should hammer home the point:
They're both stretch runs out of "12" personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR), with the opposite guard pulling toward the direction of the run. On Ridley's run, the Denver Broncos immediately crash into the backfield, but Ridley is able to side-step one defender and stiff-arm another to pick up seven yards. Brandon Bolden, meanwhile, receives much better initial blocking, but even with Matthew Mulligan holding his man, Bolden gets taken down with one arm and limited to a three-yard gain.
The Patriots made the Super Bowl in 2011 with a historically great passing game and little else. While the New England passing game has come around since Rob Gronkowski's return in Week 7, the Patriots are not at those levels. In that time span, the Pats are seventh in passing yards, fifth in completion percentage and seventh in net yards per attempt. Those are very good ranks, but not historically elite ones.
Simply put, the Pats passing game is not good enough to put the burden solely on Brady's right shoulder. The defense is unlikely to recapture its stifling early-season form due to injuries. The run offense is the one area where New England may still see big strides forward, and capturing such success begins with restoring Ridley's confidence.
New England has typically been on the extremes of the third-down spectrum, ranking highly as an offense and poorly as a defense. As you might expect, the offense has come down from those lofty peaks, ranking 18th with a 36.8 percent conversion rate. Unfortunately, the defense has remained mired in the basement, conceding a 43.6 percent clip that rates as the third-worst mark in the league.
If recent history is any indicator, the Pats will need to pick up those marks in the postseason. Since Pro-Football-Reference's Game Play Finder started recording data in 1999, here are how the Super Bowl champs in each season have fared in the playoffs compared to the regular-season league average:
|Playoff Third-Down Rates of Super Bowl Champs|
|2012 Ravens||46.3 %||41.7 %||38.7 %|
|2011 Giants||44.4 %||33.3%||38.2 %|
|2010 Packers||49.0%||32.7 %||38.2 %|
|2009 Saints||38.2 %||42.4 %||38.7 %|
|2008 Steelers||40.5 %||33.3 %||39.7 %|
|2007 Giants||43.4 %||51.9 %||39.6 %|
|2006 Colts||46.9 %||23.9 %||38.8 %|
|2005 Steelers||53.6 %||40.4 %||38.3 %|
|2004 Patriots||43.6 %||47.5 %||37.8 %|
|2003 Patriots||41.7 %||41.0 %||37.5 %|
|2002 Bucs||46.8 %||34.1 %||39.1 %|
|2001 Patriots||28.6 %||25.0 %||37.5 %|
|2000 Ravens||26.7 %||20.0 %||38.4 %|
|1999 Rams||45.7 %||40.5 %||36.6 %|
Only the 2009 Saints have been below the regular-season average on both offense and defense. Overall, most teams are solidly above the bar in one or both units.
Granted, the playoffs are a tiny sample size, but it illustrates how winning on third down often constitutes the margin of victory among teams that are usually very good and evenly matched. For a Patriots team that plays a lot of close games, third down has been a pretty reliable indicator—New England has converted 40.8 percent of first downs and held opponents to a 40.9 percent rate in wins, while those numbers fall to 20.6 percent and 53.2 percent during losses.
Fortunately, recent weeks have provided some encouraging signs. Since Gronk's Week 7 return, the Pats have upped their conversion rate to 37.1 percent. Moreover, if we cut the time frame down to Week 11, when the Patriots have had Gronk, Shane Vereen, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola healthy at the same time, the offense is converting at a 44.4 percent clip that would rank sixth in the league over the season.
Of course, one could also point to the defense as a unit that is headed in the opposite direction. Since Week 7, after the Patriots lost Jerod Mayo and missed Aqib Talib for large chunks, New England's third-down defense is "holding" teams to a 50.5 percent clip. For reference, the Atlanta Falcons rank last in the league with a 46 percent mark.
That's a long ways away from those Super Bowl championship marks above. Unfortunately, health is probably the biggest factor toward treading water defensively, especially in the secondary. The Pats need to try to buy some time off for Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington and Steve Gregory, all of whom are nursing injuries at the moment.
Simply having full strength could lead to a big uptick. If one needs further proof that the Patriots run defense isn't irreversibly broken, New England's opponents are averaging 7.5 yards to go on third down since Week 7, the seventh-longest rate in the league. Even with all the injuries, it's not as if opponents are running the ball so well that they're creating a lot of 3rd-and-short opportunities.
Still, needing to bank on health is a tenuous position. The Patriots do need a few breaks to lift the Lombardi, but executing in critical situations is something within the team's control. The Pats have proved capable of hanging with any team in the league, but how far they go will largely depend on if they can win enough of these 50-50 battles.
*All stats courtesy Pro-Football-Reference.com, and all photos courtesy NFL Game Rewind.