The Patriots find themselves in relatively uncharted waters this week, losers of two games in a row and facing a resurgent Houston Texans team on the road Sunday night.
The Patriots hadn’t dropped two-in-a-row since early in the 2012 season. What is particularly galling for them is that they’ve held double-digit leads in each of these games and came up short twice. And each loss can be attributed to some degree to the inability to and the unwillingness to trust the running game.
Against Denver they were up by 14 points and facing the top-ranked pass defense in the league. In trying to eat up some of the clock time, one would naturally assume that the running game with LaGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden would be leaned on heavily, especially against a team that is so adept at defending the pass.
But the Patriots ran the ball just once in the fourth quarter and overtime in Denver. Once Rob Gronkowski went down, their options in the passing game were very limited, having already been missing Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and Dion Lewis.
On Sunday against Philadelphia, they moved away from the running game too soon and once the wheels fell off in the third quarter, they had no choice, having to throw nearly on every down to get back in the game. The result in each was that it allowed the defense to pin their ears back and hammer Tom Brady in the pocket. Brady’s been hit 36 times in the last three games and if Josh McDaniels thinks replacing the other weapons on offense is difficult, replacing #12 is a show-stopper.
The Patriots at the three quarter mark of the season are on pace for only 369 carries and 1416 yards at 3.8 yards per carry which would be the lowest total since Bill Belichick’s first season with the Patriots. In the 2000 season they rushed 424 times for only 1390 yards, 3.3 yard average.
Now with a banged up roster on offense the Patriots face the third ranked pass defense in the league in the Texans. It goes without saying that the player they’ll have to account for is JJ Watt who is leading the league again with sacks at 13.5. He’s helped rejuvenate a Texans team that started 1-4 to get their record even at 6-6 and are still in the fight for the divisional lead. He and the oft-injured Jadaveon Clowney can be very disruptive in the passing game.
The Texans are only so-so at defending the run allowing an average of 114.1 yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry. So it would hold true to form that facing a daunting pass defense that the Patriots would try to run more right?
“There are certainly things that we can do as coaches to help put our guys in better positions or in the best positions we can put them in,” said Josh McDaniels last week. “We’ve got to be connected together to do our job and give the runs an opportunity to get started.”
We know that the Patriots are a pass-first football team with Brady at the helm, but with offensive line issues continuing thru the three quarter mark of the season, perhaps it is time for McDaniels to begin to trust the running game more. Every week the Patriots are a game-plan specific team and this week is another opportunity to take some pressure off of the passing game already short on a lot of its weapons.
They can’t afford to keep allowing Brady to get hit so much in the pocket. One thing that was alarming on Sunday after re-watching the tape was that the Eagles frequently dropped eight into coverage. They flooded the short zones and were still able to bring pressure rushing only three. Former Patriots DC now Texans coordinator Romeo Crennel had to watch the tape of that and will be planning accordingly.
Without Lewis, Edelman and Gronkowski, the Patriots receivers are having trouble getting open as well as holding onto the football (a third of Brady’s incompletions Sunday were drops). Facing a Texans team that can be disruptive against the pass with Watt inside is a great time to keep him busy with some running plays designed to slow him down. This will not allow him to be coming after Brady on every down.
Going into the postseason with a one-dimensional offense is not the recipe for a deep run. With four games to go, it will help the team long-term to get these issues ironed out and bring the running element back into the offense. McDaniels will have to trust the backs to get it done and can’t be too quick to pull the plug again. With the winter weather beginning to creep back in, the time is coming when the passing offenses begin to slow down and an effective running game becomes essential.
The quarterback’s health may depend upon it.