With all the talk about the Patriots' problems in the passing game, one could almost forget that they even have any running backs on the roster.
The Patriots' ground game has managed to escape scrutiny in light of the team's woes in the air, but their inability to run the ball may be just as detrimental to their offense as their struggles when throwing the ball.
Problems on third down and in the passing game could begin to get better if the Patriots' rushing attack consistently makes plays. That begins with improvements from an offensive line that has struggled to get any push up front, but the running backs must reward the offensive line by taking advantage of holes when they have a clear lane.
Thus far this season, the Patriots are tied at 28th in the NFL with just six running plays of 10 yards or more. Their inability to create explosive running plays on the ground has put a lot of pressure on the passing game to pick up chunks of yards through the air.
The problems stretch even further than that. The offensive line simply isn't getting enough push up front, not creating holes for the backs to go through and not moving the opposing defensive line off the line of scrimmage—or worse, being pushed backward into the backfield.
On 1st-and-10 with 9:15 remaining in the third quarter, the Patriots wanted to run up the middle behind left guard Marcus Cannon and through the B-gap between Cannon and left tackle Nate Solder. Quickly after the snap, though, Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack got into the backfield by beating Solder to the inside.
It's hard to fault Cannon for this play, even though Mack attacked the B-gap, because Cannon was preoccupied helping center Dan Connolly handle the defensive tackle lined up directly over him.
On 1st-and-goal from the 2-yard line with 46 seconds remaining in the first half, the Patriots attempted a run to the left. Stevan Ridley may have been able to get to the edge and score if Cannon hadn't been driven backward by Raiders defensive tackle Antonio Smith.
These are just two plays that highlight the Patriots' problems running the ball, but those were widespread problems against the Raiders. The Patriots had 29 running plays (not including kneeldowns to end the game) and had 13 of those runs stuffed for a gain of two yards or fewer. Seven of the 29 runs were stopped for no gain or a loss of yards.
Much of the Patriots' problems on offense stems from their inability to gain yards on first and second down. Through three games, the Patriots face the eighth-longest average distance on third down at 7.71 yards to go. The Patriots have been successful on third down in past years because their problems have not been as prevalent on first and second down.
They currently average 3.79 yards per carry on first down, which ranks 18th. Modest enough, but things get very hairy on second down, where the Patriots rush for only 2.66 yards per carry on average, the fourth-lowest second-down rushing average in the NFL.
"Well, I think third down is related to first and second down," head coach Bill Belichick said on a conference call on Monday. "That's all tied together. I think we just have to be more consistent on every down, certainly third down. ... But we have to do a better job on first and second down and create better opportunities on third down or just bypass third down altogether and convert on more second downs."
The bigger question is: How do the Patriots fix it?
For starters, it may be time to move Brandon Bolden to the bench in favor of rookie James White. The Patriots' fourth-round pick out of Wisconsin has been inactive for the first three games of the season, and while Bolden's carries have been few and far between (eight carries for 12 yards this season), at least having White on the bench would give the Patriots another option if they feel their backs are leaving yards on the field—which Bolden does quite often.
There are 47 running backs with at least 19 rushing attempts this season. Right now, Stevan Ridley ranks 38th with an average of 1.83 average yards after contact and Shane Vereen ranks 47th with 1.05 average yards after contact, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
|Patriots running backs, 2014|
The running game seemed to improve when Bryan Stork came in at center and Dan Connolly subsequently moved over to right guard. The Patriots ran the ball immediately for two gains of five yards apiece.
Connolly's shift to right guard moved Jordan Devey to the bench; Devey has been one of the Patriots' worst offensive linemen this season, and between his woes in pass protection and in the running game, the Patriots may be better off going forward with Stork at center and Connolly at right guard.
Cannon, meanwhile, is still learning a new position at guard—and his struggles have been nearly equal to Devey's. If Cannon continues to struggle in this way, it may be time to see what Josh Kline can bring the team in the regular season. Kline got a lot of attention this preseason and played every snap in the final preseason game after the team jettisoned Logan Mankins to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
One of the problems with continuing to shuffle the offensive line is that the group still lacks continuity. The Patriots would essentially be starting all over, with the inside of the line completely changed from what it's been for the first few weeks. That being said, continuity is only a good thing if the results are working, and so far, that's not been the case.
But instead of focusing solely on how the Patriots can improve their aerial attack, the Patriots may want to turn the attention to how their running game can pick up the slack.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained via team news release and all stats obtained via Pro-Football-Reference.com.