How Have New England Patriots Turned Season Around After Mediocre Start?
For most NFL teams, a 2-2 start to the season wouldn't be cause for panic. Teams are just finding their way in the first month of the season, and there are worse ways to work through early struggles than with a .500 record.
For the New England Patriots, though, the 2-2 record the first month of this season brought did cause some freaking out. The defense was playing like garbage, Tom Brady was taking a beating behind the offensive line and both of New England's losses came at home.
Two months later, though, and the Patriots are right around where we expected them to be. They're sitting at 9-2, thanks to seven consecutive wins, and are tied for the best record in the AFC. Not only is New England in control of the AFC East, it's in control of its own destiny when it comes to the No. 1 seed in the conference.
So how did the Patriots manage to turn their season around and get to where they are after 12 weeks? That's what we're going to examine here.
Better Communication in the Secondary
The most concerning part of New England's first month was the frequency with which the secondary was burned by big plays.
This was due in large part to miscommunication in the secondary. The back end of the defense was still trying to adjust to life without Logan Ryan and with Stephon Gilmore at cornerback.
This miscommunication was especially apparent in the season-opening loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Blown coverages led to 42 Chiefs points and over 350 yards passing.
To help right the ship, the Patriots tried simplifying coverages. This would help players in the secondary rely more on their talents and less on complex communication.
Slowly but surely, New England's secondary players began to do a better job of communicating on the fly.
Head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia then began adding more complex schemes back into the game plan. Now, we're seeing a pass defense that more closely resembles the one that won the Super Bowl earlier this year.
Better Defensive Play Overall
In addition to having better communication in the secondary, the Patriots have seen better play from the defense overall. The big plays are coming against it far less often and the points are not racking up with as much frequency.
Just consider this: The Patriots allowed an average of 32 points per game during the first month of the season but haven't allowed more than 17 points per game since. The defense is now allowing just 20.0 points per game on the season and 13.14 points per game over the last seven contests.
This means that—despite the disastrous first month of the season—the Patriots defense isn't too far off of what it was last season, when it allowed an NFL-low 15.6 points per game.
The one area that could use some continued improvement is the pass rush. We saw a big step against the Miami Dolphins, a game in which Matt Moore was sacked seven times. Still, the Patriots only have 24 sacks on the season and averaged less than two a game coming into Week 12.
Better Pass Protection
The other big concern early in the season was the protection of Brady. Remember, this is a 40-year-old quarterback and the centerpiece of the Patriots offense—and really the organization. Yet, he was bashed, battered and sacked with alarming frequency early on.
In the first month of the season, Brady was sacked 13 times. After two months, he had been sacked 21 times. That put him on pace for a career-high 42 sacks on the season.
Of course, this didn't mean the Patriots were going to take the ball out of their best player's hand.
"We're not going to hand the ball off 70 times per game," Belichick said, per Nicole Yang of Boston.com. "Is that what you think we should do? Run 70 runs a game?"
Instead, New England adjusted its offense and its protection schemes. It's paid off. Even though the Patriots have had to shuffle their offensive line around because of injuries, Brady has only been sacked once in each game since the Week 9 bye.
Brady is now on pace to suffer 35 sacks this season, which is still a lot. However, if recent weeks are a clearer indication of New England's pass protection, he's likely to be sacked far less.
This should help ensure Brady is upright the remainder of the season and has made it easier for him to carve up defenses to this point.
A Better Rushing Formula
While the Patriots don't want to completely take the ball away from Brady, they do want to have a balanced offense. That's become easier to do in recent weeks, as the Patriots have retooled the rushing attack.
Early in the season, Mike Gillislee was the primary rusher. He did some good things—he had three rushing touchdowns in the opener, for example—but he hasn't been as consistent as the Patriots would like this season.
Gillislee has averaged just 3.6 yards per carry in 2017. Unsurprisingly, he hasn't been part of the game plan in recent weeks.
As the season has gone on, New England has given a bigger workload to Dion Lewis. He leads all Patriots backs with an impressive average of 5.1 yards per carry. He racked up 112 yards on just 15 carries in Sunday's win over Miami.
Rex Burkhead has become a nice complement to Lewis in recent weeks as well. He's averaging 3.9 yards per carry on the season.
While New England is still primarily a passing team—it leads the league with 297.0 passing yards per game—the ground game is respectable. The Patriots rank 14th in the NFL with an average of 114.2 yards rushing per game.
More Brandin Cooks
One big difference between this year's Patriots offense and last year's is the presence of wideout Brandin Cooks. The former New Orleans Saints speedster brings New England the kind of deep threat it hasn't had since the days of Randy Moss.
However, Cooks wasn't a major piece of the offense over the first couple weeks of the season. He only had five receptions over the first two weeks of the season. Since then, though, he's been a bigger piece of the game plan and has had five or more receptions in seven games since.
Cooks has had at least six receptions in each of the last three games. He also ranks sixth in the NFL with 869 yards receiving through Week 12.
The increased role for Cooks changes what the Patriots are able to do on offense. Not only does he give the offense a true burner with which to scare defenses, he opens up space for other pass-catchers on underneath routes.
Cooks is a big reason why the Patriots' passing game is now virtually indefensible.
Brady Being Brady
Let's be honest: The Patriots have done a lot to turn their season around after a disappointing start, but they wouldn't be sitting where they are without the incredible play of No. 12.
Brady is playing as well this season as he ever has. Through 11 games, he has racked up 3,374 yards, 26 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He got his 26th touchdown on Sunday against the Dolphins, which set a new record for the most in a season by a quarterback over 40.
Now, the Patriots need to ensure they have Brady for the rest of the season. Plenty of folks questioned Belichick's decision to keep the 40-year-old in a game against the Dolphins that ended 35-17.
Belichick had a typical Patriots response, though.
"It's easy for you to sit there and say the game's out of hand,” Belichick said, per Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald. "If you watch games in the National Football League, a lot can change in a hurry."
Thanks in large part to Brady, the Patriots have quickly changed their mediocre season into another potentially great one.