How the New England Patriots' Injuries Have Affected Their Offense
The New England offense, one of the few consistently good units in the NFL on a year-to-year basis, has struggled this year.
No, they haven't struggled putting points on the board. They're one of three teams to average more than 27.2 points per game: Carolina (31.6), Arizona (31.2), and New England (30.9).
They have, however, struggled with keeping their skill players on the field. Julian Edelman, Dion Lewis, Brandon LaFell, Rob Gronkowski, and LeGarrette Blount -- basically the team's best options at the skill positions -- have all been hit with injuries to varying degrees.
The latest development is that Blount's hip injury sustained in Week 14 turned out to be season-ending.
And this is on top of the fact that the offensive line had started the season as one of the biggest question marks in the NFL.
Yet, through Week 14, the Pats are still among the league leaders in points per game and in our Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics, which compare a team's performance to historical expectation level.
An easy way to think of NEP is to consider the difference between a 10-yard gain on 3rd-and-5 and a 10-yard gain on 3rd-and-20. Big difference, yeah? Over the course of the season, those plays really add up, and NEP quantifies them, so it's much more descriptive than yardage totals alone.
After the team's Week 14 game against the Houston Texans, their schedule-adjusted NEP score for the season was 159.50. That mark is second in the league, trailing Arizona's 184.06. Cincinnati is a pretty distant third, at 143.61.
So, from a season-long perspective, the offense has been one of the best, but has it slowed down recently as the injuries have piled up?
Let's take a look.
New England's Metrics
Really, from the numbers, you wouldn't know that this team has lost some of their best playmakers, which is a testament to their success. However, that doesn't mean they haven't slowed down from their early-season pace.
|Patriots||Adjusted NEP/Play||League Rank||Weekly Adj NEP Change|
Then again, considering that the team's worst ranking in Adjusted NEP per play came back after Week 2 and that they've been a top-two offense when controlling for both volume and opponent strength, it's, again, hard to say that the team has slowed down enough to be considered a struggling offense.
However, the team hasn't been quite as dominant in single-game performances, evidenced by the lack of double-digit Adjusted NEP games since Week 8. That has caused their per-play offense to drop noticeably. However, only 10 teams have averaged at least 6.00 Adjusted NEP per game or more this year, a mark New England has hit in all but four games.
For some more context, even their worst outing (3.32 Adjusted NEP against Philadelphia) is about a league-average mark for Adjusted NEP per game. Rob Gronkowski missed that game, and that's a common theme.
That post-Week 8 dropoff more or less coincides with the injuries (and one inefficient addition).
Running Back Issues
Perhaps the biggest absence has been that of Dion Lewis, who hasn't played since Week 9. Through Week 9, Lewis ranked eighth among 54 backs with at least 40 carries in Rushing NEP (9.30) and second in Rushing NEP per carry (0.19). He was third among those backs in Reception NEP (25.66).
Now, Blount hadn't been bad, but he hadn't had quite the impact that Lewis did. His Rushing NEP on 165 carries of 2.91 currently ranks 10th among 40 backs with at least 100 carries. He's 9th on a per-carry basis (0.02) -- Lewis was at 0.19, albeit on a much smaller sample. But, much like the rest of his career, he's been surprisingly reliant on big plays, as his Rushing Success Rate (41.21 percent) ranks 17th among those high-volume backs.
Unfortunately, Brandon Bolden and James White don't seem capable of taking over lead duties. Bolden (-5.97 Rushing NEP on 35 carries with a 28.57 percent Success Rate) and White (-1.28 Rushing NEP on 16 carries with a 37.50 percent Success Rate) have been underwhelming enough to warrant the signing of Montee Ball to the practice squad.
The sixth-best team by Adjusted Rushing NEP per play will have a tall order to keep up the rushing efficiency for the rest of the season.
The passing game has carried on well enough, but the noticeable shift since Week 8 makes a lot of sense.
In addition to losing Lewis' receiving, the Pats have also been without Julian Edelman since Week 10. Through Week 10, though, Edelman ranked 10th among receivers in targets (88). Among 45 receivers with at least 50 targets at the time, his Reception NEP (64.39) ranked 10th. Per-target (0.73), he ranked 18th. He was 7th in Catch Rate (69.32 percent), but only 78.69 percent of his receptions actually added positive NEP to the team, a mark that ranked 35th among those 45 receivers.
Edelman's injury gave way to Danny Amendola's increased involvement. Amendola saw 11, 12, 13, and 8 targets in his four games between Week 10 and Week 14 (he missed the team's Week 12 contest against the Denver Broncos). He has 81 targets on the season.
Of the 61 receivers with at least 60 targets through Week 14, Amendola's Reception NEP per target of 0.69 ranks him 30th, his Catch Rate (76.54 percent) ranks first, and his Reception Success Rate (82.86 percent) ranks 40th. He's roughly as efficient as Edelman on a per-target basis, but better things have happened consistently when targeting Amendola, based on his two rate stats.
The bigger issue than swapping Edelman for Amendola (in addition to losing Lewis) is the uptick for Brandon LaFell, who first played in Week 7.
LaFell has seen between six and nine targets in each of his games this year, but has maxed out at five catches. He has just one 100-yard game (102 yards in Week 9) and fewer than 70 yards in all the rest. Among those 61 receivers with 60-plus targets (LaFell has 64), he ranks 59th in Reception NEP per target (0.41), 58th in Catch Rate (46.88 percent), and 59th in Reception Success Rate (73.33 percent).
Let those ranks soak in a bit.
The big-play threat isn't just missing on a high rate of his targets; even when he does reel it in, he isn't doing much.
Through it all, Tom Brady has totaled a Passing NEP of 148.66, which is second best in the league, lagging behind only Carson Palmer's 164.16. Brady's mark, with three games to play, would have ranked fourth in the 2014 season. That's pretty dang good.
Efficiency hasn't been Brady's strongsuit through the injuries, however, as his Passing NEP per drop back (0.26) ranks fifth among 33 passers with 200-plus drop backs. Yeah, that's still a great mark, but his Passing Success Rate (48.85 percent) ranks him 10th. Again, that's good, but it's not as good as his second-place cumulative rank suggests he's been. Only he and Philip Rivers have more than 550 drop backs (Brady has 567, and Rivers has 577).
What It All Means
Really, the team has slowed down and hasn't been adding points above expectation quite like they did early in the year. But even the Patriots' down games are good enough to keep them at the top of the league.
After all, they haven't played worse than a field goal above expectation in any game this year. Four teams have Adjusted NEPs below zero, and another four have marks below 10.
New England still has a lot to figure out going forward, especially in the running game, but they do own the 10th-best defense on a per-play basis, per our metrics. That defense and the still-great offense has combined for a fifth-ranked nERD of 9.04, which indicates the expected point differential between a given squad and an average opponent on a neutral field.
With a playoff spot clinched, the Pats own a 17.6 percent chance to win the Super Bowl, the third-best odds in the NFL.
Same old Patriots.