Patriots vs. Chiefs: What Are Experts Saying About New England?
Much like last season, uncertainty surrounds the New England Patriots as the regular season's first quarter wraps up. But while personnel turnover and injuries could explain away much of last year's struggles, a Pats team that looked like an AFC juggernaut on paper cannot hold onto any similarly neat excuses.
In fairness, the preseason expectations are driving much of the pessimism around Foxborough. It is almost difficult to remember that the Patriots currently sit at 2-1—a perfectly healthy record that leaves them in position to pull away from the rest of the AFC East.
Nonetheless, a soft opening month has allowed New England to conduct a greater degree of self-diagnosis, since teams like the hapless Oakland Raiders and Minnesota Vikings will not represent the type of competition the Pats expect to see in January. That self-diagnosis has revealed numerous flaws, both old and new, that could be fatal if left uncured.
Of course, with 13 games left, it is far too soon to declare anything definitive about the Patriots season. Until we see a larger sample size, any sweeping proclamations are irresponsible at best.
As we have done the past two weeks, let's turn to the national media to provide some perspective on the local furor. Checking out a roundup of the most intriguing Patriot-related analyses, we might grasp a clearer notion on which worries are legitimate and which are exaggerated.
Chris Burke: Pats One of Week 3's Worst
Patriots fans have a tendency to fret when their lofty expectations go unmet. While such disquietude is typically unfounded, SI.com's Chris Burke pinpointed New England as one of Week 3's worst teams despite the victory:
New England's offense had to scratch and claw for all 16 of those points, the lone touchdown coming on a Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski pass. That play did not occur until the 4:14 mark of the second quarter, breaking what had been an Oakland shutout. New England's run game mustered all of 76 yards against the Raiders' 32nd-ranked rush defense.
There's no statistical defense of the offense—as we will see, plenty of other analysts harped on that unit's shortcomings. Nonetheless, it is hard to find any reliable metrics that suggest the Pats were truly one of the worst teams last week.
For instance, the Patriots rose two spots in Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings, from seventh to ninth. Similarly, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded New England's entire roster out at plus-8.1 overall, though the defense accounted for much of those positive ratings.
Indeed, the defense is performing at elite levels, even if the subpar competition provides some sobering perspective. But the Pats were far from the all-around debacle that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Jacksonville Jaguars were last week and do not deserve the kind of contempt that evokes them with the worst teams in the league.
Still, there is no denying that the Pats have failed to fulfill expectations thus far. The next few slides will highlight some of the shrewdest criticisms, pinpointing specific personnel who have underperformed the most.
Greg Bedard: O-Line Bloodbath
Patriots OL room film review had to have been a blood bath. Holy hell. Outside of Connolly, they're terrible.— Greg A. Bedard (@GregABedard) September 23, 2014
It's not hard to pinpoint New England's most disappointing unit through the first three games. Though coaching and personnel turnover along the offensive line made an adjustment period virtually inevitable, that does not excuse the rampant breakdowns in technique that have plagued the offensive line this season.
While the run blocking has only been slightly below average, the pass protection has dropped from elite levels to the bottom half of the league. Football Outsiders ranks the Pats' line 17th in pass protection (based on adjusted sack rate), while PFF actually has New England as the worst pass-blocking team in the league based on cumulative grades.
PFF likely provides a more telling picture, as it accounts for pressures that do not result in sacks. Indeed, even with New England resorting to a bevy of three-step drop-passing concepts, the line has still struggled consistently. On plays in which Tom Brady has been sacked, he has had an average of just 2.87 seconds to throw, the third-quickest time-to-sack rate in the entire league.
Continuity will help, and perhaps the insertion of mauling rookie Bryan Stork at center will stabilize the interior a bit. But chemistry takes weeks to develop, and the lack of individual awareness and lateral agility is still a pressing issue with no clear guarantee of future improvement.
Sam Monson: Revis Has Regressed
Darrelle Revis was supposed to represent New England's greatest defensive chess piece in years, the type of shutdown corner who would provide Bill Belichick with a plethora of game-planning possibilities. While Revis has been far from a liability so far, PFF's Sam Monson notes that the former All-Pro corner has regressed from the days when he was the league's premier cornerback (via ESPN, subscription required):
There was no bigger marquee signing during the offseason than Revis in New England. It wasn't a long-term deal, but the pairing of Revis with the defensive creativity of Bill Belichick was a tantalizing prospect. Sadly it has yet to live up to the hype. While he hasn't graded badly, he has been entirely average in a year where he was supposed to re-stake his claim to being the best shutdown corner in the game. Revis Island appears to have developed a ferry port and light aircraft terminal.
It's important to note that Monson later suggests that he believes Revis remains a true No. 1 corner who is still likely adjusting to New England's scheme. Indeed, the Pats have not simply tethered Revis to a single receiver and given him "solo" calls. Rather, they have mixed man and zone coverage this season; unsurprisingly, Revis' best game came when he played press man the entire afternoon against the Minnesota Vikings.
In truth, it is more accurate to say that Revis has merely been very good rather than transcendent. On the year, quarterbacks have posted a paltry 65.4 quarterback rating when targeting Revis. He has allowed eight completions on 16 targets, but more importantly, just one of those has gone for more than 20 yards.
Between Revis and Devin McCourty, the Patriots have two excellent safety valves who are capable of limiting big passing plays through their range and exemplary awareness. That is where Revis' true value lies, so while he may concede the odd 10-yard out route, he remains a bankable asset the Patriots can rely upon.
Chris Simms and Matt Bowen: Pats Offense Not Sustainable
The video above highlights what many Patriots fans have feared: At this moment, New England's passing game is one of the least diverse and most predictable attacks in the league.
Similar limitations were present at the end of 2013, but injuries provided a convenient excuse for much of those woes. With Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins healthy, as well as offseason additions Brandon LaFell and Tim Wright, the current Patriots' receiving corps appears much more multifaceted and talented than the 2013 rendition that essentially relied solely upon Julian Edelman.
And yet, Edelman has remained Tom Brady's only trusted target, which has left the Patriots in the same paralyzing position. Last year, Brady ranked a middling 12th on deep passes (passes traveling 20 or more yards in the air) with a 39.4 percent accuracy percentage. Somehow, he has regressed even further in 2014, with a mind-numbing 7.7 percent accuracy percentage that easily ranks last, more than twice as worse as the next-lowest quarterback.
Offenses are dynamic systems, so it is wrong to simply blame a single player or unit for these woes. But the combination of shoddy protection, limited receivers and declining accuracy from Brady has created a vicious cycle that has resulted in the Patriots willfully sacrificing space.
Given that the most innovative offenses are exploiting spacing advantages, the Pats look like a bumbling anachronism by comparison. This is unfortunately a problem with no quick solution—all of the aforementioned units must improve substantially before the Patriots see tangible progress in the passing game.
Nonetheless, there is a reason the Patriots remain a legitimate contender despite their severe offensive limitations.
Aaron Schatz: Pats Defense Best in the League?
Though the past two weeks have hardly provided championship-caliber competition, the Patriots defense has looked terrific since the season opener, when a bizarre two-gapping scheme that was clearly ill-suited to their personnel resulted in head-scratching struggles. As Football Outsiders' Aaron Schatz notes, the Pats defense actually ranks as the best in the league based on unadjusted success rate:
The Patriots' offense has been mediocre, ranking just 23rd, but the Patriots' defense ranks No. 1 in the league. Only the Lions have allowed fewer yards per play, and only the Bears have as many interceptions plus fumbles (including fumbles recovered by the offense). The Patriots have been average against the run but they have an awesome pass defense so far even though Darrelle Revis has only looked really good in one of the three games.
It's important to note that FO's DVOA stat normally includes adjustments for strength of schedule, something that is not yet incorporated since it is too early in the season to truly determine each team's strength. By virtue of playing the Raiders and Vikings, the Patriots figure to take a small tumble when the first real DVOA rankings come out next week.
But the team efficiency rankings at Advanced Football Analytics do include opponent strength, and the Pats rank first defensively there as well. The two sites do not use the same formula, so it is not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. Nevertheless, both through film and advanced metrics, it is clear that the Patriots possess one of the league's elite defenses.
For now, that will have to suffice. As in previous years, when the Patriots offense carried the team, a single unit was not enough to propel a team to serious Super Bowl contention. While offensive improvement is non-negotiable if the Pats want to remain among the league's best teams, the defense can help New England bank wins while buying time for the offense.
*Unless otherwise cited, all stats via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).