The New England Patriots and Tom Brady have once again had to reimagine the offense, and it seems to be working.
The New England Patriots defeated the Minnesota Vikings at home on Sunday afternoon 24-10. It was their second consecutive victory since their pre-bye week loss to the Tennessee Titans.
For the Patriots, it was their fourth game in five in which the defense allowed 17 or fewer points. While two of those games were the lowly Buffalo Bills (31st in points scored) and the New York Jets (26th in points scored), they also included the more impressive offenses of the Green Bay Packers and last week’s opponent the Minnesota Vikings (all statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted).
For New England, the defense is stepping up at the right time as the offense has slowed down. After scoring 38 points or more for four consecutive games, the Patriots have scored 25, 31, 10, 27, and 24 points in the previous five games. Other than the debacle in Nashville, New England has had the defense to complement the offense.
This season has seen the Patriots deal with turnover, injuries and ineffectiveness on offense. Rookie first round draft pick tackle Isaiah Wynn was lost to an Achilles injury in the preseason and free agent running back Jeremy Hill went down in week one. Then, in week three, running back Rex Burkhead was lost until last Sunday with a concussion/neck injury.
The Patriots were without wide receiver Julian Edelman for four games to open the season. Tight end Rob Gronkowski has had a number of injuries and is on pace for his lowest average yards per game since his rookie season in 2010.
Tight end Jacob Hollister–who was expected to take a step forward in 2018–has missed much of his sophomore season to injury and has barely been able to crack the line-up and develop chemistry with Brady. Also, the Patriots added wide receiver Josh Gordon during the season and he has had to learn a new offense and get to know Brady.
The Patriots have leaned on their running backs in 2018. James White leads the team with 74 receptions for 659 yards and six touchdowns. Fellow running back Sony Michel has struggled to stay healthy, but when healthy he has provided New England the between-the-tackles consistent runner the offense has lacked for a number of years.
Michel missed week one, was limited in the offense until Burkhead went down in week three, and then exploded with three straight games consistent and powerful running. He scored four touchdowns and rushed 67 times for 326 yards over three games in which the Patriots scored 38, 38 and 43 points.
Michel went down in early in week seen and returned in limited action in week ten before the bye week. In the two games since the bye week, Michel has 38 rushes for 199 yards and a touchdown in the past two games, both wins. However, an interesting trend has emerged in those two games.
In both games against the stubborn Jets on the road and the dynamic defense of the Vikings, the Patriots turned back the clock like it was 2003. Gone was the high-flying offensive attack and in its place was the pounding offensive attack of a power running offense with a short passing attack.
One factor is quarterback Tom Brady. As he has shown in 2018, even at 41 years old, he is capable of winning a shootout, In week five versus Indianapolis, he completed 34 of 44 passes for 341 yards and three touchdowns and two interceptions leading New England to a 38 to 24 win. The next week against Kansas City he completed 24 of 35 passes for 340 yards and a touchdown. In week seven, he completed 25 of 36 for 277 yards and three touchdowns and one pick.
In the first three games of the season while missing offensive weapons Brady struggled and was sacked six times in three games. After staying clean against Miami and Indianapolis, Brady was sacked ten times in the next five games. After being battered by the Titans in a 34-10 loss, the offensive brain trust in New England made changes.
In the past two weeks, the Patriots have flipped the balance on offense. Against the Jets, the Patriots targeted James White just twice in the first half while achieving balance on offense with 16 rushing attempts and 17 passes. In the second half, the Patriots pulled away after a close first half and pounded out 215 yards on 36 carries versus 31 pass attempts–and zero sacks allowed.
On Sunday the Patriots repeated the game plan. Even though the Vikings were short-handed at cornerback, the Patriots went to an almost entirely short, quick passing attack in the first half. Brady attempted 17 passes while the team ran the ball 16 times. Not until their final drive of the third quarter did the Patriots allow Brady to stretch the field vertically.
New England again pulled away late in the game as the defense picked up the slack in the second half. The offense finished with 39 rushing attempts for 160 yards and 32 passing attempts. Again, the Patriots blockers kept Brady upright and clean and did not allow a single sack.
The Patriots clearly came out of the bye week determined to keep Brady safe from the big hits he took against Tennessee and earlier in the season. Per Pro Football Focus, Brady released the ball against Minnesota in 2.22 seconds, the quickest release time of any quarterback in week 13.
The Patriots put the load on their defense and running backs in the past two games. They rushed for 375 yards combined in the past two games after rushing for just 239 yards in the previous three games. The defense, who had allowed over 400 total yards five times in 2018 allowed just 338 total yards against New York and 296 total yards against Minnesota.
The New England offense has emphasized ball control and taking control of the time of possession. In New York, the Patriots held the ball for 34:26 compared to 25:34 for the Jets. On Sunday against the Vikings, the Patriots held the ball for 33:21 compared to 26:39 for Minnesota.
This was a throw-back the last two weeks to the days of the strong defense with creative coverage and pressure schemes, running the football, and keeping Brady upright. While New England can engage in a shootout, the Patriots will refrain from doing so if possible, at least until necessary in the playoffs.
Tom Brady is the most valuable part of the New England offense. The Patriots are clearly not exposing him to unnecessary risk during the rest of the season whenever possible. The past two weeks were a referendum on how the Patriots can still win without having to get into a shootout.