Patriots’ struggles in 2023 tie back to one offensive stat

Patriots’ struggles in 2023 tie back to one offensive stat originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

FOXBORO — Halfway through the 2023 season, Bill Belichick’s offense is still looking for playmakers it can rely upon to sustain drives and create explosive plays.

They’re over five years into their search, which dates back to Tom Brady’s final days in New England.

Unfortunately for the Patriots, offensive efficiency and playmaking ability is the name of the game in this day and age, when roughing-the-passer penalties abound and fan interest is driven in part by explosive plays and points scored.

In fact, offensive success rate — how consistently a team stays on schedule in terms of down and distance — may be the lead indicator as to which teams are the league’s best. Not points scored or points allowed. Not yards per game. Not turnover margin.

Not this year, at least.

The top 11 teams in success rate on the offensive side of the ball all have winning records at the moment, and they include seven clubs on track to win their divisions. The Patriots are currently 24th in that particular metric. And Sunday’s loss to the Commanders was just the latest example of how dysfunctional they’ve become in that phase.

They went 4-for-14 on third and fourth down. They possessed the ball for just under 23 minutes. They recorded “successful” plays — gained at least 40 percent of yards to go on first down, 60 percent on second down and 100 percent on third or fourth down — on just 36.5 percent of their snaps.

For context, the NFL’s worst offense in terms of success rate this season is the Jets at 37.4 percent, meaning the Patriots were made to look like one of the worst offenses in football against a scuffling Commanders that had just seen two of its best players — Chase Young and Montez Sweat — traded away earlier in the week. Washington came into Week 9 ranked 30th in yards per pass attempt allowed and expected points added per dropback.

When the Patriots needed a play most on Sunday, their dearth of playmakers was an obvious hindrance. Driving the field to tie or win the game late in the fourth quarter, Mac Jones delivered an accurate pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster over the middle. The ball deflected off Smith-Schuster’s hands and was picked off. Game over.

It was the second painful drop for the Patriots in the game as wideout Jalen Reagor, recently promoted from the practice squad, muffed a would-be touchdown deep down the field late in the third quarter.

The lack of a go-to player in those types of game-defining moments is nothing new to New England. The Patriots have lost four one-score games this year and have turned to a potpourri of names late who would likely be third or fourth options on good offensive clubs. At best.

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Against the Eagles in the opener, rookie sixth-rounder Kayshon Boutte (a healthy scratch on Sunday) couldn’t get his feet down in bounds on a potential game-changing target. Against the Dolphins in Week 2, Mike Gesicki — the team’s third-most productive tight end this season from a yardage standpoint — had to lateral to guard Cole Strange to try to extend the game on a fourth down. Against the Raiders in Week 6, DeVante Parker saw a long-gainer ricochet off his hands. And in Week 9, Smith-Schuster’s drop was the team’s death knell.

The Patriots have had myriad issues offensively this season. The offensive line has been up and down, though it was not the problem against the Commanders. The quarterback play has been consistently inconsistent.

But in their latest defeat, without top receiver Kendrick Bourne, it was plainly obvious that their weaponry wasn’t enough even to take down a team that is openly tanking from a roster-building standpoint and was already one of the worst passing defenses in the NFL.

It’s bad. And there are no obvious answers as to how it will get any better over the course of the second half of the season.

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