The New England Patriots have a secret. They cannot throw downfield. At all. Their entire deep passing game is completely dysfunctional. It is killing them on third downs, and it will start costing them games if they don’t fix the problem soon.
The Patriots are not keeping this secret very well. Tom Brady is 3-of-21 on deep passes this season. Opponents and fans have taken note of his nonstop screens and dump-offs. But New England wants you to think this is business as usual. This is a short-passing offense, they say. Brady has not been a bombardier since Randy Moss left town. We dink and dunk by design, and we are winning games.
Actually, the Patriots don’t say those things. They don’t say anything, unless you consider Bill Belichick’s guttural noises human communication. But New England apologists say those things. This is business as usual. Brady did not throw deep against the Vikings and Raiders because he did not have to. Look—the offensive line has allowed just three sacks in two games! Problem solved.
Brady did not throw deep against the Vikings and Raiders because he could not. He is too busy protecting his offensive line for his offensive line to protect him. New England's lack of quality downfield receivers has also become a critical issue, and Brady cannot sling it deep like he used to.
The Patriots have to cover for so many shortcomings that they can rarely take a shot downfield anymore, and when they do, it is not a very good one. Their lack of a deep-passing game did not hurt them much against the Raiders and Vikings. It could be disastrous against the Chiefs and Bengals.
The Patriots’ 3-of-21 deep-passing rate looks bad, but it’s far worse than that. A “deep” pass according to NFL play-by-play is any pass that travels more than 15 yards in the air. Two of New England's three “deep” completions were not very deep at all: a 21-yarder to Julian Edelman against the Dolphins and a 22-yard strike to Rob Gronkowski over the middle against the Raiders that only traveled 17 yards in the air.
That leaves Brady with just one completed “bomb” this season: a gorgeous 44-yarder to Edelman in the second quarter against the Dolphins, his first deep-pass attempt of the season. The veteran quarterback tried to throw deep on the very next pass play, but Cameron Wake beat Sebastian Vollmer on the right side and put a lick on the quarterback. The result: A wobbly pass to Edelman sailed out of bounds.
That’s when the troubles began.
Brady found Edelman on a skinny post for that 21-yarder, but everything else went wrong that could go wrong for the Patriots’ deep-passing game in the season opener. Brady absorbed four sacks. When he did get rid of the ball, he took hits from Jared Odrick, Earl Mitchell and others.
Some of his passes were simply inaccurate: He overthrew Edelman by a mile and sailed a deep sideline pass to Brandon LaFell high and out of bounds. A wheel route to Shane Vereen floated just out of bounds, too.
Then there were miscommunications: Edelman flashed open on a corner route on one play, but Brady threw toward the middle. The QB and Gronk also had several differences of opinion on passes up the seam.
The Patriots kept throwing deep against the Dolphins because they had to: Most of Brady’s attempts came after the Dolphins took a two-score fourth-quarter lead. Against the Vikings and Raiders, the deep attempts stopped almost completely.
Brady has thrown deep—beyond 16 yards downfield—five times in two games. He hit Gronkowski once, as mentioned earlier. He drew a 16-yard pass interference call on a wheel to Vereen on another. The others were an overthrow of Edelman (Vikings), a wobbly hit-as-he-threw misfire to Danny Amendola (Vikings) and a play-action pass to LaFell, 22 yards downfield, that was tipped by an underneath defender.
The scant deep attempts we have seen over the last two weeks continue a disturbing pattern from the Dolphins game: overthrows, hits on Brady and an over-reliance on wheel routes to manufacture a deep-passing presence. These problems manifest themselves most troublingly on third downs, when the New England offense is suddenly at its worst.
The Patriots rank 23rd in the NFL with a 39 percent third-down conversation rate. They have come by the ranking honestly: Football Outsiders, which adjusts for variables like third-down distances (some teams have faced a high number of 3rd-and-1 or 3rd-and-15 situations this early in the season), also ranks the Patriots 23rd on third downs, as well as 23rd on third down and seven or more yards.
The Patriots also got a boost from a 9-of-18 third-down performance against the Raiders, thanks in part to a handful of easy 3rd-and-short conversions. When passing on 3rd-and-long (more than seven yards), Brady is 9-of-16 for 111 yards, two sacks and four first downs.
Yes, you read those numbers correctly: nine 3rd-and-long completions, but just four first downs. Brady has a six-yard pass on 3rd-and-21 and a one-yard pass on 3rd-and-23 on his resume, among other variations on the “let’s just punt” philosophy.
The Patriots have also run the ball six times on 3rd-and-long, getting one Vereen first down and a bunch of 12-yard runs on 3rd-and-19. The road to the Super Bowl is not paved with three to four “give up” plays on third down per game.
Here is the scariest statistic: Brady has only thrown past the sticks eight times on 3rd-and-long this season. Remember that “long” means seven or more yards, and I am counting 10-yard passes on 3rd-and-10 as “past the sticks.”
So far this season, the Patriots have been almost as likely to call a Vereen draw play in a sticky third-down situation as they are to ask their Hall of Fame quarterback to throw a pass long enough to guarantee first-down yardage.
Yes, guys like Gronk, Edelman and Vereen can be counted on for some yards-after catch first downs. That’s a great Plan B. Plan A, on your basic 3rd-and-8, has to be the ability to just complete a pass nine yards down the field. The Patriots have shown an extreme reluctance to do that.
It may be because they cannot keep Brady vertical long enough for a receiver to get open.
The Rotating Line, and Other Bad Ideas
As has been well-documented, the Patriots offensive line had a terrible game against the Dolphins. Belichick and coordinator Josh McDaniels juggled interior linemen in search of a workable Dan Connelly/Ryan Wendell/Jordan Devey combination at center and right guard but never found one.
New England has a way of making its early-season problems suddenly disappear: Remember when the team had no receivers at the start of last season? When the Pats deactivated Wendell and routed the Vikings, their protection problems appeared to be solved.
Those problems were not solved. The rotation has kept spinning, with Bryan Stork taking late-game reps at center in both the Vikings blowout and the tight Raiders game. (Connelly generally replaces Devey, who is in danger of becoming a Bill Buckner-type character in Boston when Stork enters the game.)
The running game has also stagnated. The Patriots average just 3.5 yards per rush, and there is a lot of fluff in the numbers, from 35 end-around yards by Edelman to all of that 3rd-and-long draw-play yardage, which amounts to more than half of Vereen’s rushing production.
All of the problems cannot be pinned on Devey or the rotation.
Khalil Mack flew past Nate Solder to apply a hit on Brady in the Raiders game. Later, Justin Tuck spun Solder completely around to reach the quarterback. Sebastian Vollmer, as mentioned earlier, has had his troubles.
The Patriots have been using backup tackle Cameron Fleming as an extra tight end; the six-linemen look has become somewhat trendy, but it is not the type of thing you expected to see New England using two or three years ago, when the team trusted its line and wanted to get as many ball-handlers as possible into pass patterns.
The Patriots offensive line is so bad right now that it would produce many more four-sack, six-knockdown games like the Dolphins loss if Brady threw deep more often. That is one reason the longtime QB is not throwing deep very often.
There are other reasons: New England has no deep threats to throw to. Its top free-agent acquisition at wide receiver, LaFell, was an unreliable possession target for the Panthers. Aaron Dobson’s return from foot injury was slow, and he has been a healthy scratch for two of the first three weeks. Gronk is not himself, and we cannot be certain who he really is after two injury-marred seasons.
Building a deep passing attack out of Edelman, Vereen, LaFell and Kenbrell Thompkins will inevitably result in overthrows and passes into tight windows. And while it is impolite to mention it, Brady lost his top fastball years ago. Most of his truly deep attempts—not 17-yarders to Gronk, but attempts to launch the ball—wobble or tail away from receivers who are not fast or gifted enough to retrieve them.
The Patriots did not have much of a deep-passing game in 2013, either. But they had a running game and pass protection. Now, they are playing a shell game of screen passes, six-linemen packages and wily Brady reads.
It has worked against a pair of awful opponents. But New England must block Justin Houston, Tamba Hali and the blitz-happy Chiefs this week, then the stout-all-over Bengals front seven. These opponents cannot be beaten by blocked punts and field goals, and Brady magic only works when he is upright.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. All stats courtesy of Football Outsiders.