Stats the New England Patriots Must Improve in 2014

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Stats the New England Patriots Must Improve in 2014
Elsa/Getty Images

Stats don't always tell the whole story, but they almost always tell part of the story.

For the New England Patriots, that story includes more struggles than usual in the passing game, a defense that couldn't get off the field and a running game that brought the jabs, but not the haymakers.

Fortunately, the offseason is ripe with opportunities for improving the roster to help in any way the Patriots deem necessary.

There are pitfalls into exploring stats without providing context, so we'll do our best to look not just at the numbers that have to improve, but why they may not have been up to snuff in 2013 and what the Patriots can do to get things back on track in 2014. 

 

Explosive Pass Plays (20-plus yards)/Deep Accuracy

Patriots big plays/Tom Brady's deep accuracy
Year 20+ yards 40+ yards Deep attempt % Deep accuracy %
2010 54 10 9.1 44.4
2011 72 14 9.8 41.7
2012 57 8 13.2 40.5
2013 49 8 10.5 39.4

Sources: Pro-Football-Reference.com; ProFootballFocus.com

The one area everyone is talking about improving coming out of the loss in this year's AFC Championship is the passing game, and the weapons, or lack thereof, around quarterback Tom Brady. On the year, the Patriots' 49 pass plays of 20 yards or more ranked 16th in the NFL and their eight pass plays of 40 yards or more tied for 20th.

His 39.4 accuracy percentage on throws 20 yards or more downfield ranked 25th out of 40 qualifying quarterbacks, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

Part of that can be attributed to being without the Patriots' best offensive weapon, tight end Rob Gronkowski, for nine games in 2013. Tack some of the blame for the absence of big plays on the budding chemistry between Brady and new targets like Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Danny Amendola.

But you absolutely cannot avoid the fact that Brady was responsible for his share of the problem. Open receivers were missed, reads were not correctly made, and Brady generally struggled at times to put the ball in a place where only his receiver could make a play on it.

Improved chemistry between Brady and his receivers should help. Dobson looked to be coming along nicely before a foot injury put a damper on the rest of his season. Amendola legitimately looked like a 100-catch receiver in training camp and could still turn out to be that kind of receiver if he stays healthy for a full season. 

Add Edelman and Gronkowski to that mix, and if everyone else can build off of last season, the Patriots have a solid foundation for their offense. 

 

Defensive Third Down

For years, the Patriots defense has been maligned for its inability to get off the field on third down. They've lingered in the bottom five to 10 in the league for the past four years running in those situations, and in allowing opponents to convert 42.7 percent, the Patriots came in with the eighth-worst third-down defense in the NFL.

Patriots' defensive third downs
Year Third down % allowed NFL rank
2010 47.1 32
2011 42.9 26
2012 39.5 20
2013 42.7 25

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

One might assume it had to do with their run defense, which allowed the third-most yards in the league, but they actually allowed only 21.7 percent of those third-down conversions via the run (lower than the league average of 26.3 percent of third-down running conversions), as opposed to 78.3 percent via the pass (higher than league average 73.7 percent of third-down conversions through the air).

It would help if the Patriots defense could even get off the field quickly once in a while, but it generated a three-and-out on only 20.9 percent of their defensive series (24th in the NFL).

Their inability to get off the field had wide-reaching effects.

The sheer volume of plays took its toll over the course of the season. As a team, the Patriots' 5.97 defensive plays per drive ranked 25th in NFL, according to Football Outsiders. Individually, defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich led the league in snaps among defensive ends, with 1,175 and 1,063 respectively. 

It would be understandable for the Patriots defense to get tired, and it looks like that's exactly what happened.

Source: Pro Football Reference

As a game wore on, the Patriots gave up more and more rushing yards per carry, with only a slight dip in the fourth quarter. 

The Patriots should be looking to add depth at defensive end this offseason. They want to avoid putting demands on Jones and Ninkovich every week to get pressure in key situations while also asking them to run their tank to empty.

 

Breakaway Runs and "Power" Runs

Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

The Patriots didn't have many of their runs stuffed for a loss or no gain. At 16 percent, the Patriots offense was fourth-best in the league in minimizing such runs, according to Football Outsiders. In fact, avoiding negative runs may have been the most redeeming quality of the Patriots' running game in 2013. 

It certainly wasn't breakaway runs, where both LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley earned less than or equal to 25 percent of their rushing yards on carries that gained 15 yards or more. Blount and Ridley each had seven such runs, with Blount gaining 192 yards on those runs and Ridley gaining 141 yards.

As a team, the Patriots totaled 20 rushing plays of 15 yards or more (16th in the NFL), a step back from 2012 when they had 25 (ninth in the NFL). They had nine of those 20 runs in one game against the Buffalo Bills at the end of the season. They had at least one 15-yard run in only nine games this year, but they went 8-1 in those games.

Perhaps they would have had more long runs with a full 16 games from Shane Vereen, who is the most explosive of the Patriots' four running backs. 

Not only did the Patriots struggle to produce long runs, they also struggled to pick up first downs in short-yardage situations, converting just 59 percent of runs on third or fourth down with two yards or fewer to go (25th in the NFL).

Over the years, the Patriots have been much maligned for their inability to run the ball in obvious running situations. They showed signs of improvement in this area down the stretch, but it looks like they must continue to find ways to grind out the tough yards on the ground to keep the chains moving.

The Patriots face some big questions this offseason. Blount is set to hit the free-agent market, and although both he and the Patriots would like him to stay with the team, there's also the possibility that someone could come along and overpay him based on what that team saw at the end of the season.

Blount's value is hard to put a price tag on because he's pretty much limited to being ball-carrier and lacks the versatility to contribute much in the passing game.

The Patriots could also be facing some changes on the interior of their offensive line. Center Ryan Wendell is set to hit the open market, and right guard Dan Connolly's $4.083 million cap hit for 2014 figures to be up for a restructure at some point this offseason.

As a result, the Patriots may have to consider the future of their running backs and their offensive line this offseason.

 

Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases. 

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