Yes, the New England Patriots offense is a struggle.
That is the result. The cause is their concerning offensive strategy.
Specifically on early downs. Over the second half of the season (since week 8) the Patriots rank:
- No. 29 in percentage of early downs that gain a first down (20.5%)
- No. 30 in distance to go on third down (7.8 yards)
Teams most often are NOT similar in both rankings. Some teams (most) don’t prioritize skipping third downs. So they might not have a high rate of early downs that gain a first down.
However, what these teams tend to prioritize is setting up third-and-manageable situations. Let’s look at a few examples:
But as a result, they often find themselves in longer distances to go on third down. Because when a pass isn’t completed beyond the sticks on second down, it sets up third-and-long.
So while both rank top-4 in bypassing third downs, both rank bottom-4 in average distance to go on third down.
On the other hand, teams like the Colts and Chargers have very little care at all for bypassing third downs. It appears they prioritize putting their offense into manageable third-down situations.
The Colts rank No. 1 in distance to go on third down (only 5.8 yards) but rank No. 30 in percentage of early downs to gain a first down (20.3%). The Chargers are similar, ranking No. 4 and No. 24 respectively.
This is a suboptimal strategy, but it is their strategy nonetheless. If they aren’t going to skip third downs, at least they’re making them manageable.
The Patriots, however, appear rudderless and without offensive direction.
They are terrible at bypassing third downs (ranking No. 29) and similarly terrible at setting themselves up for manageable third-down situations (ranking No. 30).
There are only two teams in the NFL that rank bottom-10 in both metrics over the second half of the season: the Patriots, and the team they will face on Monday night, the Cardinals.
But the Cardinals at least rank better in both (No. 25 and No. 27 respectively). The Patriots are the only team to rank bottom-5 in both metrics, and they actually rank bottom-4 in both.
New England must get a better approach to early downs.
Either use them to bypass third down (ideally) or use them to set up a manageable third down. You cannot rank bottom-4 in both.
Arizona is a perfect defense to be going up against for the Patriots.
On early downs, the Cardinals allow 29% of plays to result in first down and thus, bypass third down. That ranks No. 31 in the NFL. And the second half of the season, it hasn’t improved at all (29%, No 29).
On third downs, the Cardinals defense is allowing an average distance to go of 6.5 yards (No. 26) and over the second half of the season, has gotten even worse, ranking No. 29 (6.1 yards-to-go).
Rate of early downs to convert a first down: No. 17, No. 29, No. 3 and No. 12 respectively
Distance to go on third downs: No. 1, No. 19, No. 12 and No. 24 respectively
Now facing a Cardinals defense that ranks bottom-4 in both over the second half of the season, the Patriots absolutely must take advantage of their early downs and look to bypass third down more frequently, if possible. And if that isn’t working, set up manageable third downs.
But if the Patriots do neither, as they’ve failed to do the entire second half of the season, they may fall to below .500 on Monday night.
Jalen Hurts Dominated on Early Downs
We expected the forward-thinking Eagles organization to come out throwing the ball last weekend vs. the Titans pass funnel defense, which is great against the run but terrible against the pass, and they did.
The Eagles were the No. 1 most pass-heavy offense in the NFL on first downs in the first half (77% pass). And on early downs in the first three quarters, despite being up large, the Eagles remained at 77% pass.
On these passes, Jalen Hurts ranked:
- No. 1 in EPA/att (+0.56)
- No. 1 in success rate (65%)
- No. 4 in completion rate (79%)
- No. 5 in YPA (9.7)
Hurts threw for 321 yards alone on early downs in the first three quarters. That was the No. 2 most for any QB in any game this season (Joe Burrow vs. the Falcons in Week 7).
Only eight QBs have posted a game with over 245 passing yards on early downs in the game’s first three quarters.
Jalen Hurts is the only QB to do it more than once — and he’s done it three times this year.
Over the last two weeks, aside from Mark Andrews, the Ravens top three receivers in routes run were:
Robinson was cut from the Raiders in August.
Jackson wasn’t even with a team in August. Or in May, June or July. His contract expired with the Raiders, he wasn’t in camp with any team and was a free agent until the Ravens signed him in October.
Duvernay is in Year 3 of his rookie deal. Of the 93 receivers drafted in the first three rounds of the draft since 2000 to play at least 30 games in their first two years, Duvernay ranks:
- No. 93 of 93 in yards per reception
- No. 85 of 93 in receiving yards
- No. 79 of 93 in receptions
Despite running the 37th most routes of these 93 receivers.
The Ravens leading running back this year is Kenyan Drake. Drake, just like Robinson, was cut from the Raiders in August.
This is the skill group that Lamar Jackson is working with.
And the Ravens have played the No. 8 toughest schedule of defenses in the NFL.
And yet the Ravens offense ranks No. 6 in efficiency this season.
Despite playing with these receivers. Despite playing with these RBs. Despite playing this schedule.
Watch as Nick Wright explains why Lamar Jackson’s injury is more devastating for the Ravens, not Lamar despite his ongoing contract issues.
This speaks volumes about Lamar Jackson.
The Ravens are currently 8-4 and the No. 3 seed in the AFC, not thanks to their great receivers and running backs.
Their defense is lower rated (No. 9) than their offense, and their defense has played an easier schedule of opposing offenses (No. 12) than the offense has faced.
Jackson injured his knee taking a sack on Sunday and will likely be out several weeks due to a PCL injury.
The Ravens certainly can claim that their strategy in trying to build their 2022 roster was sound, because they are sitting at the 3-seed in the conference.
But the lack of quality at the WR and RB positions has made things extremely difficult for the offense and Jackson. And as a result, Jackson isn’t having close to the banner year he probably was hoping to have entering his final season under contract with the Ravens.
The Ravens have an extremely poor record when Jackson has missed starts. Since he became a starter, the Ravens are 2-5 in games without Jackson. It will be interesting to see how productive they can be in a big game in Pittsburgh on Sunday.
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Warren Sharp is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He is the founder of Sharp Football Analysis and has worked as a consultant for league franchises while also previously contributing to ESPN and The Ringer, among other outlets. He studied engineering before using his statistical acumen to create predictive football models. You can follow Warren on Twitter at @SharpFootball.
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