If the Patriots’ record is perfect, how can they improve?
Pats cornerback Jonathan Jones put it rather succinctly this week in the locker room.
“I think a perfect game is 100-0, which we haven’t had. And even then, we could get 102,” he said. “So, there’s always room for improvement.”
Several Patriots echoed Jones’ sentiment after their mini bye, which followed their sixth win in a row last Thursday. Offense, defense, special teams can all get better, they said. They receive corrections from their coaches every day in meetings and on the practice field. Then they work to realize them on Sundays.
With an eye on Monday’s kickoff at the Jets, here are five ways the Patriots can improve on their already historic start to the season.
Cooling Brady off under pressure
Generally, it’s hard to find a customer cooler than Tom Brady.
This year, they’re in abundance.
Through six weeks, Brady’s completion percentage under pressure ranks dead last in the league among current starting quarterbacks, per Pro Football Focus. He’s fired the third-most throwaways after only Aaron Rodgers and Kirk Cousins, who have both faced significantly more pressure. Most of the time under duress, Brady’s either given up on the play or missed a throw.
Even eliminating throwaways and pass drops from the equation, Brady’s still been unusually inaccurate. His adjusted completion percentage among quarterbacks with at least 80 snaps under pressure this year ranks 26th, his worst mark since 2014, per PFF. Put another way: His adjusted completion percentage when hurried matches Mitchell Trubisky’s.
Brady doesn’t quite trust his rookie receivers yet, nor his banged-up offensive line. In tighter games, he’s seen ghosts, then stepped into real danger.
To a degree, it’s all understandable. And perhaps it’s reasonable to expect Brady will return to his usual level of performance level over time, especially once Isaiah Wynn returns at left tackle. Except so far, the slate of defenses the Patriots have faced has hardly been threatening. It’s on Brady to find a way to stay calm, cool and collected.
With multiple tilts against top-10 defenses still ahead, the heat’s only getting turned up from here.
Power up the run game
It’s possible the Pats’ rushing attack never reaches the level it rose to during last year’s postseason run.
None of the backs are particularly explosive. The tight end and fullback positions have become revolving doors. The starting O-line currently consists of two backups, one of whom should start for the rest of the season.
That’s all fine. The Patriots can lean on their defense and special teams for support when the passing game sputters. They already have. But some time, they’ll need a tough yard or two, and the surest way to pick those up will always be on the ground.
Through Week 6, the Patriots rank 21st in Football Outsiders’ Power Success metric, which measures a team’s percentage of runs on third or fourth down with two yards or less to go that achieved a first down or touchdown. It also includes goal-to-go runs from the two-yard line or closer.
Basically, Power Success assesses how well a team performs in short yardage. And at 60%, the Patriots are in the same neighborhood as the lowly Falcons and Jets.
Brady solved this issue with a pair quarterbacks sneaks against the Giants, a well the Pats know they can’t return to every week. They’ll need some kind of secondary option; either Sony Michel rediscovering how to muscle his way through loaded box (he was recently benched at the goal line for Brandon Bolden), a powerful replacement at fullback or some unforeseen change. Expect the Pats to exhaust all their options here.
Wipe off the butterfingers
Statistically, the Pats’ best wide receiver may also own the worst hands on the team.
According to PFF, Julian Edelman is tied for the league lead with six drops. During arguably his best performance of the season last week against the Giants, he had two. And this isn’t simply a case of more targets leading to more drops.
Among receivers who have seen at least 30 catchable passes, only Cowboys wide receiver Michael Gallup and Houston’s Will Fuller own a higher drop percentage than Edelman’s 13.6. Josh Gordon, who has three drops, isn’t far behind at 13%. Edelman and Gordon lead Patriots receivers far and away in playing time and can’t continue to let completions slip, with the offense navigating a thinner margin for error than most years.
It’s time to focus up, and finish.
Firm up the run defense
The best defense in the league has a soft underbelly. It’s true.
Opponents are averaging 4.29 yards per rush up the middle of the Pats’ defense, according to data compiled by Sports Info. Solutions. That figure ranks only behind the Chiefs, Browns and Lions. On the whole, the Patriots rank 24th in stopping the run, per PFF grades.
The Pats have knocked out most of their opponents out early with big leads, thus forcing them to throw late. It plays directly into the hands of their deep, versatile pass rush and lockdown secondary. In tighter games, opponents have been able to maintain offensive balance and hung around.
Buffalo’s Frank Gore broke through for 41-yard run up the gut in Week 4. The Redskins enjoyed periodic success running inside in Week 5. And teams will continue to test the middle of the Patriots front until it firms up; especially the power-running Ravens, Eagles and Cowboys over successive weeks in November.
Fix the field goal unit
The last time the Patriots went a full game without missing a kick, regular-season baseball was still being played and school wasn’t yet in session in parts of New England.
Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal and multiple PATs over Weeks 2-4. His replacement, Mike Nugent, drove an extra point wide in his team debut, then doinked a field goal off the upright in his second game. The Patriots reportedly hosted several kickers for workouts this week and could welcome another to the team if Nugent can’t get it together.
The team already misses all that a healthy Gostkowski used to provide. The only question is how long that longing will continue.