2017 Season Grades so Far at New England Patriots' Bye Week
The New England Patriots survived another ugly game in Week 8. The Los Angeles Chargers came into Foxborough and had an opportunity to steal a win. However, the Chargers made more mistakes than the Patriots and went home empty-handed instead.
As a result, the Patriots head into the bye week with a 6-2 record, tied for the best in the AFC.
It hasn't always been pretty, and the Patriots certainly struggled early in the year, but New England is right about where we thought it would be at the start of the season. The team is still on track to secure an AFC East title and is still on pace to compete for a first-round playoff bye.
Here, we're going to examine how the Patriots have gotten to this point and how the team is shaping up at the bye. We'll be looking at key areas of the team—like passing offense, run defense and coaching, to name a few—and providing letter grades for each.
We'll be factoring in how the team has performed through Week 8, along with any progressions or regressions the Patriots have shown in recent weeks.
The Patriots haven't had the kind of power-running game they had in 2016 behind LeGarrette Blount, but they've managed to cobble together a serviceable committee in the backfield.
The foursome of Mike Gillislee, James White, Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis has been good, though not spectacular. However, the run game has been improving. A bigger role for Lewis has helped—he leads Patriots running backs with a 4.7 yards-per-carry average—as has committing to the run.
While New England is still pass-heavy on offense, the Patriots have stuck with the run even when they are struggling. As a team, New England has passed the ball 309 times and run 221 times through Week 8. Even though the Patriots are averaging just 3.9 yards per rush, the commitment to the run has helped the team average 109.0 yards per game on the ground, 15th in the NFL.
New England's ground game isn't elite, but it's good enough to keep the offense balanced when the weather starts to turn.
While the Patriots have been fairly consistent running the ball, they've been far less consistent when trying to stop the run. Despite having a big and physical defensive front, the Patriots have been gashed on the ground at times.
This past week, for example, New England surrendered 157 yards rushing to the Los Angeles Chargers. A big chunk of that came on an 87-yard run by Melvin Gordon.
New England has also had some solid outings against the run, though it's not as though the run defense has been a total disaster. Against the New York Jets, for example, the Patriots allowed a total of just 74 yards on the ground.
Overall, the Patriots have been a disappointment when defending the run. They're ranked 24th in the NFL with an average of 121.5 yards per game allowed. This is an area that will need to improve if the Patriots want to beat quality running teams in the postseason.
The one constant the Patriots have had this season has been under center in the form of quarterback Tom Brady.
Brady has been his usual productive self this season. Through eight games, he's already thrown for 2,541 yards and 16 touchdowns with just two interceptions. He's done it without standout wide receiver Julian Edelman and, for one game, without Rob Gronkowski.
As a team, the Patriots are averaging 302.1 yards per game, most in the NFL.
We cannot give the Patriots a perfect grade, however. Pass protection has been questionable at best—Brady has already been sacked 21 times—and that's a problem.
Brady, if you remember, is 40 years old. Lasting an entire season is tough even for a young quarterback. If the offensive line doesn't start doing a better job of protecting Brady, making it through the next eight games and the playoffs could be a challenge.
If the run defense has been bad, the pass defense has been worse—at least defensively. As a team, New England is allowing an average of 295.5 yards per game through the air, most in the NFL. That obviously isn't good.
However, it is worth noting that the pass defense has shown dramatic improvement in recent weeks.
While New England was consistently beaten through the air early in the year, much of the problem was confusion among players still learning to play together—like $65 million man Stephon Gilmore. Some of those issues have been corrected, and New England's pass coverage has improved.
"We're learning how to play Patriots defense, we're learning that better and better," linebacker Kyle Van Noy explained after the win over L.A., per Peter Gobis of the Sun Chronicle. "We have a lot of new guys, a lot of young guys, it takes time."
Because the pass defense is showing tangible improvements, our grade isn't as low as it might have been a few weeks ago.
Belichick often expresses the importance of succeeding in all three phases of the game. This is precisely why the team regularly uses roster spots for players like Matthew Slater and Brandon Bolden, whose biggest contributions come on special teams.
The Patriots have been strong when it comes to kick coverage and the return game. New England is averaging 10.5 yards per punt return and 23.5 yards per kick return. At the same time, the Patriots are allowing just 5.6 and 19.2 yards on punts and kicks, respectively.
New England hasn't fared quite as well in other areas of special teams. Punter Ryan Allen is ranked 30th in net average (39.0 yards), and kicker Stephen Gostkowski has experienced his own struggles. He has already missed three field goals and an extra point this season. He missed five field goals all of last season.
The Patriots have been good on special teams, but not great.
The Patriots are usually going to get high marks for coaching because Belichick is one of the best to ever do it. This season has only highlighted that fact.
Belichick, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have had to adjust to adversity over the first two months of the season—actually before then, if you take into account the loss of Edelman.
New England has recovered from a 2-2 start and has now won four in a row. Coaching is a big part of the turnaround. The Patriots have turned the page on what the team was a year ago and have found a new identity and a new plan for winning games.
Committing to the run and playing a simple bend-but-don't-break style of defense has helped overcome some of the issues that plagued the team initially. As always, Belichick's ability to make week-to-week coaching adjustments has helped carry New England through a pretty rigorous start to the season.
Are the Patriots perfect offensively? Of course they're not. Belichick will be the first to tell you that things like third-down conversion rate (just under 46 percent) isn't ideal, especially in the red zone.
"We're giving up too many big plays on defense and can't convert on third down in the red area," Belichick said, per Mike Reiss of ESPN.com. "Those are two huge issues."
Overall, though, the Patriots have to be pleased with their offense. New England is averaging an NFL-high 411.1 yards per game. The Patriots are also averaging 27.0 points per game, seventh in the NFL. In most weeks, that's more than enough to beat most opponents.
There is room for improvement, obviously, so expect the Patriots to come out of the bye with some new wrinkles in the offense.
As we've already mentioned, the Patriots defense is nothing like the dominant unit of 2016. A year ago, the Patriots were ranked No. 1 in scoring defense with an average of just 15.6 points per game allowed. This season, the defense is allowing 22.4 points per game, 18th in the NFL.
In terms of yardage, the Patriots are even worse. They're allowing a league-high 417.0 yards per game.
As we've also mentioned, though, the Patriots have improved defensively. They're still giving up yardage, but they aren't giving up big plays with the frequency they did at the start of the season. More importantly, New England is limiting opposing touchdowns.
Over the past four games, New England is allowing just 12.75 points per contest. That's far better than the 32 points per game the Patriots allowed over the first month of the season.
It's hard to argue with where the Patriots are right now. With the Kansas City Chiefs' Monday night matchup still yet to be played, New England is one of only four teams with two or fewer losses in the AFC and one of only two with six wins.
The other 6-2 team is the Pittsburgh Steelers, who will host New England in Week 15.
Sure, the Patriots would love to be undefeated right now, but they still have a good chance to earn a first-round playoff bye and possibly home-field advantage. With the defense making steady improvements and the offense just steady, New England is again one of the teams to beat in the NFL.