The Patriots have gone a dismal 7 for 39 (17.9%) on third downs during their past three games. That sequence has included two 1-12 performances (in losses to the Bengals and Jets) with a 5-15 day sandwiched in between. Only Tom Brady's last minute unicorns and sparkle ponies have prevented them from going 0-3 in that stretch.
Another concerning trend is the team's overall performance in the third quarter of games. New England has historically been a strong second-half team, but the Patriots have been outscored 44-9 in third quarters this season.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had this to say about the third quarter struggles:
"I don’t think there’s been one consistent theme. I think that there’s no magic formula
for any team to come out and do well, whether that’s the beginning of
the game or the third quarter. I’d love to say that there’s a personnel
grouping or a style of play or certain types of play calls that could
insure us a certain level of success, but I don’t really believe that
that’s the case."
"That’s really where my focus is going to be," he explained. "I know
ultimately whatever we choose to do, we’ve got to put our guys in a
position where they can execute and succeed, so I think we’ve just got
to keep grinding away at it. It’s not for lack of effort on anybody’s
part, and I think that we’ll definitely take a look at everything we’ve
done and try to improve in every area, including the beginning of the
While the third quarter numbers are harder to pin down, it's easy to see that injuries have played a big factor in the team's third down struggles. Between Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Shane Vereen, the Patriots anticipated having four guys who could constantly create mismatches to exploit in the passing game. They've gotten a combined total of five games from those players. There's no overstating the impact of those losses.
McDaniel's hasn't helped the cause by occasionally abandoning the run too soon. In the Patriots two losses (both of which were fueled by 1-12 days on third down), the Pats ran 18 and 20 times, despite averaging 4.5 yards per carry or higher in both games. For contrasts sake, they've run an average of 31.4 times in their five wins.
Sticking with the run helps the offense in a myriad of ways. It keeps the offense from getting predictable and pass heavy, which in turn helps to slow down opposing pass rushers. It also helps to keep third downs at manageable distances. There isn't much excitement in a couple of three yard runs up the middle, but incompletions on early downs create situations like the three straight failed 3rd-and-10 attempts that doomed the Patriots comeback effort Sunday.
One final factor in the Patriots third down struggles has been the surprising inaccuracy of Tom Brady. Brady leads the league in over and under thrown passes, a startling statistic considering how sharp the legendary quarterback looked in the preseason and training camp. As a long time Brady fan (and as a fellow Brady), it's been difficult to watch Brady flat out miss a potential big play seemingly every week. For example, better throws to Danny Amendola open deep against the Bengals and Aaron Dobson last week could have significantly altered two games the Patriots wound up losing.
Combining these three factors, the Patriots third down struggles become expected rather than startling. The good news is that some of these issues are correctable. Gronk being back represents a massive upgrade in weaponry. Danny Amendola practiced today, a good sign that the receiver dodged a bullet with his scary looking concussion against the Saints. The Pats also might only face two more games without Vereen, as the running back has reportedly progressed well and could return Week 11 after the team's bye week. We have not seen this offense even close to full-strength this season.
Hopefully, the offense will make an expected jump when Brady gets his arsenal of weapons back. Until then, expect the Pats to struggle to move the chains.