As it turns out, last week's game against the Atlanta Falcons which featured multiple big plays was not an indication that the New England Patriots offense was shaking off their early season doldrums. Based on what the offense has done for the entire season, including yesterday's contest against the Cincinnati Bengals, the production of last week seems like an outlier. Perhaps more closely representative of the true ability of the Patriots offense, at least until tight end Rob Gronkowski returns from injury, is what we saw from them on Sunday as they fell to the Cincinnati Bengals in a 13-6 defeat.
No matter what the Patriots offense tried to accomplish on Sunday, they almost invariably failed to execute, finishing the contest having averaged just 4.1 yards per play and only having one drive on which they gained more than 40 yards. Most of their drives did not even see the unit come close to the 40-yard threshold as they accumulated an average of only 24 net yards per drive. Since their average field position was their own 29-yard line, not averaging a significantly higher yardage total per drive made it pretty much impossible for the team to score any points; an average drive would have seen the Patriots acquire the ball on their 29-yard line and then give it up after reaching the Bengal's 47-yard line.
Standing in the way of the Patriots not doing more with their twelve possessions was their horrific performance on third downs. For the game, the Patriots only converted one of their twelve third-down opportunities into a first down. Of course, their inability to get a first down is no surprise once one considers that on third downs, the Patriots had an average of 7.9 yards to go and managed a meager 0.8 yards per third down.
Even an average play for them on Sunday, which would have been 4.1 yards, would not have gotten them many first downs, either. Failure to accomplish more on first and second downs continually left the Patriots in situations they were ill-equipped to handle.
The day was so awful for the Patriots offense that on their best drive of the game, the unit still failed to score any points. Midway through the fourth quarter when they were down 13-3, the Patriots engineered a drive using the big plays that had served them so well against the Falcons in their previous contest. Running back LeGarrette Blount started the drive by gaining six yards and then Tom Brady hit his receivers for two deep catches, the first going 53 yards to Aaron Dobson and the second going to Danny Amendola for a 16-yard play. Those three plays gave the Patriots the ball on the Bengals' one-yard line with four chances to score a touchdown.
With only one yard to go, a touchdown that would have made the game a one-possession affair seemed like a sure thing. Yet, a Blount run for no gain and two Tom Brady incompletions later, the Patriots were no closer to scoring that crucial touchdown.
Then Patriots head coach Bill Belichick made the curious decision to kick a field goal on fourth and one instead of trying again to get the touchdown. Given the poor performance of the Patriots offense all day, having the ball with one yard to go to get a touchdown represented their best chances of scoring a touchdown. Remember, this is the only drive of the game in which the Patriots had gained more than 40 yards so to cavalierly disregard the 75 yards accumulated on this drive was a real head-scratcher.
Surely, Belichick could not have expected for the Patriots to regain control of the ball and then march back down the field when they had shown no ability to do so all game. No, the best decision Belichick could have made would have been to go for the touchdown when he had the best chance to do so. To believe that the Patriots would once again be able to find themselves in such an advantageous position again, within the next 6:30, was to ignore the struggles they had experienced all contest long. Belichick was basically putting all his faith in a pipe dream.
Of course, there is no guarantee the Patriots would have scored if they had gone for it on fourth down, the attempt would have been worth it considering how well they would be rewarded versus how much they would be punished for not getting it. According to Advanced NFL Stats' 4th down calculator, the average success rate for teams that go for it in the situation the Patriots faced is 68 percent and successfully getting the touchdown would have raised the Patriots' win probability to 26 percent. Making the field goal would have given the Patriots an 11 percent chance of winning the game.
Failing to get the touchdown would have lowered their win expectancy to four percent and the calculator says that the Patriots should have gone for it if they thought they had a 32 percent chance of getting the touchdown. Given their inability to gain yards on third down, it was certainly not a fait accompli that the Patriots would have scored if they had gone for it. Yet, if Belichick could not have confidence in his team getting one yard, why would he believe in the offense to gain enough yards to score a touchdown in the future?
Events unfolded in a way to suggest Belichick should have had no confidence in his offense as the Patriots did not even return to the red zone for the rest of the game. On their next drive, after recovering a Giovani Bernard fumble at the Bengals' 44-yard line, the Patriots lost five yards on three plays. The Patriots then followed up that drive by needing 28 penalty yards from the Bengals just to gain 38 net yards on 7 plays before Brady threw a game-ending interception.
Of course, it did not help that a deluge of rain just when they were trying to score that ever-elusive touchdown made the Patriots' drives that much more difficult. The Patriots had enough problems all game moving the ball against the Bengals defense without the weather conspiring against them.
On the day, quarterback Tom Brady finished having gained an anemic 4.0 net yards per pass play, taking a sack on 9.5 percent of his dropbacks (4 of 42) for a total loss of 31 yards. Without a strong passing game, the Patriots will rarely have much success or score many points.
Sadly, the mediocre performance of the Patriots offense wasted another strong showing from the Patriots defense, who held the Bengals to 4.9 yards per play, got four sacks of their own, and forced two turnovers.
Given the history of the Patriots offense, at least when all the most important players are healthy, might have led one to having a too idealistic impression of what this current offensive unit is able to accomplish. Until the Patriots are able to perform efficiently and consistently on offense, expectations should be that they are nothing more than an average unit that will occasionally move the ball down the field. Additionally, the offense is also the unit that is holding the team back from having more success on the field.