The biggest problem with the Patriots last season — and the most frustration for Tom Brady — was the Patriots' inability to convert on third downs.
Everything, really, started there.
Want to put up more points on offense? Convert more third downs.
Wanted the defense to be better at the end of the season? Would have helped if the offense was on the field more ... by converting more third downs.
The Patriots were, for them, abysmal last season, finishing 18th in the league — their worst ranking since at least 2002 — at 38.3 percent. They hadn't been that low since 37.8 in '03 ranked them 13th.
Third down is the money down, but not all third downs are created equal.
On third and long (more than 6 yards), you can expect to get more zone coverage, which is easier to convert against. Patriots were 18th there, right below the league average.
On third and short (less than 4 yards), scheme comes into play, along with playaction and motion — long a Patriots' strength. New England was tied for 11th there, just above the league average.
But on third and medium conversions (4-6 yards), the Patriots ranked 21st. That was actually a marked improvement, if you can believe it, over 2018 when the Patriots — clunky offensively until very late in the season and then on the way to squeaking out a sixth Super Bowl title — ranked 30th.
If third is the money down in the NFL, then third and medium is the high-roller distance. Neither the offensive nor the defense has an advantage, be it through scheme or distance. The playing field is level. It's mano a mano in more ways than one — it's a good pressure down for defenses, so you see a lot of man coverage.
Basically, an offense can't hide on third and medium. It's a mirror that tells you how many dangerous players you have, and the Patriots have not had enough of them the past two seasons on offense. Brady will tell you that.
Once it became apparent to defensive coordinators that Rob Gronkowski was no longer a nightmare matchup in 2018, that left the other Patriots exposed. In what would become a constant theme the past two seasons, offensive coordinators started to double team Julian Edelman and slide the safety or another defensive back from Gronkowski onto James White, the best third-down back in the league.
Starting in Week 10 through the Super Bowl in 2018 (minus the Vikings game against an unfamiliar NFC opponent), White averaged just 3.1 catches and 22.2 yards per game receiving.
The advantage the Patriots once enjoyed with White was gone. No one else stepped up to be the dangerous matchup, so Edelman and White were largely neutralized.
The Patriots, after losing Gronkowski to retirement, didn't do anything in the 2019 offseason to help in that area. Dontrelle Inman, Demaryius Thomas and Maurice Harris didn't make the roster. First-round pick N'Keal Harry and tight end Matt LaCosse couldn't stay on the field. When the run blocking took a huge step back, the Patriots were stuck in the mud. It's why the team was desperate enough to go get Antonio Brown — he would have been the (needed) third triplet to Edelman and White.
After again doing little this offseason — and swapping Jarrett Stidham/Brian Hoyer for Brady — is there any hope it will be better this season?
It's true that the hope in Foxborough is that with health, better blocking, a better running game and more out of N'Keal Harry, Mohamed Sanu and two rookie tight ends, the offense can be better this season.
But this is also true: What else are they going to say, 'We're going to be worse and we're giving up on the season?'
This is what the Patriots have left themselves with, and they have no choice but to find a way, or at least have a plan to be better. It's akin to me saying, 'I hope that BSJ grows this year.' Do you expect me to say, 'I hope we get smaller'?
It's not even a question of whether it's realistic at this point. This is who the Patriots are, and they're going to need to find a way to be better.
Yes, better blocking will help immensely. If the running game is better, then third downs become more manageable and you convert at a higher rate.
But at some point, in the second half of tight games, and against the toughest opponents, the Patriots are going to need to be better on third and medium. That means more players are going to have win and be difference makers.
Going with the thought every team will go with the double Edelman/put a DB on White plan to start the season, someone or multiple players are going to need to pop to force defenses to respect everyone.
My list of players who have the most pressure on them to come through in order for the Patriots to be better on third downs: