Why are Patriots struggling with once-dependable part of passing game?

(Adam Richins for BSJ)

FOXBOROUGH — There were no offensive players on Bill Belichick’s conference call with the media on Tuesday, but if they could have heard him, they would have known that a storm was coming.

The coach was asked about the Patriots’ recent ineffectiveness in the screen game, and his response was damning.

“Any plays you're not making yards on, it's hard to get excited about those,” Belichick said. “Our screen game hasn't been as productive as we need it to be. We need to, obviously, coach it better and execute it better. We're not getting enough out of it. It's disappointing.”

Small wonder that a few offensive players begged off the chance to talk about the issue on Tuesday afternoon. “We heard it pretty good (Tuesday) morning,” said one offensive lineman.

To Belichick’s point, as of late, it's been a mess. After years of relative success, currently, the Patriots screen passes have been one of the least impactful offensive options for New England. For as good a collection of offensive skill position players they have on the roster, the Patriots currently rank as one of the worst screen pass teams in the NFL.

“Based on what we're gaining on them,” Belichick added, “(Our opponents) should be happy every time we run one.”

All stats need to be put in some sort of context, and with that in mind, it’s important to note that over the first five games, the screen game was actually pretty good. To that point, the Patriots had completed 14-of-15 screen passes for 91 yards. Not exceptional, but certainly good enough where it was still considered a usable weapon in the New England passing game. The Patriots were 5-for-5 for 57 yards on screen pass attempts in Week 2 against the Saints, a game that included an 18-yard screen pass to Rex Burkhead and a 23-yarder to James White.

But since then, the screen game has fallen off the map. The accuracy is still there (18-for-19), but because a screen pass travels three to four yards max, we’re not necessarily grading for completion percentage. Since Week 5, those 18 passes have gone for just 51 yards. That includes nine completed screen passes the last two weeks against the Raiders and Dolphins … that went for a combined 7 yards.

Overall, according to Pro Football Focus, the Patriots rank in the bottom half of the league in most screen pass categories, including attempts (34, 20th in the NFL), completions: (32, which puts them 16th), yards (142, 26th), touchdowns (none, tied for 23rd) and yards per attempt (4.18, which is good for 29th).

That stands in stark contrast to the screen pass numbers from the 2016 regular season: 65 attempts (seventh), 56 completions (seventh), 366 yards (11th), three touchdowns (tied for third) and 5.63 yards per attempt (19th).

So what happened? Based on a rewatch of every screen pass attempted by the Patriots this season, a few things jump off the page.