The Patriots have continued to roll on offense in 2017, but one aspect of their system that has been noticeably absent has been screen passes. It’s not a coincidence, either – Bill Belichick himself has acknowledged their struggles in that department.
Speaking to reporters on his Tuesday conference call, Belichick was asked how much value there is in the screen game if they’re not gaining yards consistently. The head coach didn’t hesitate to say it’s an aspect of the offense that has fallen short of expectations.
“Well, I mean any plays you’re not making yards on, it’s hard to get excited about those. Our screen game hasn’t been as productive as we need it to be,” Belichick said. “We need to, obviously, coach it better and execute it better. We’re not getting enough out of it. It’s disappointing.”
Belichick added that it’s been a “combination of things” that has contributed to the Patriots’ relative lack of production on screen passes, which have long been a big part of Josh McDaniels’ system.
Addressing the media in his own conference call on Tuesday, McDaniels sounded less concerned about making screens a bigger part of the Patriots offense – but still admitted they could be better.
“Whenever you call a screen, you’re obviously limiting your options in the passing game because it’s a one-man pattern, and screens, I think, have always been and will always be kind of hit or miss,” McDaniels said. “When you invest in them, you could end up with a really good play, not always a huge play or big play, but you could end up with good plays and you could end up with other things that happen on them – defensive line grabs the screen back, there’s other things where they blitz the other side and then drop to the side that you’re screening to – but obviously you’re trying to counter teams’ aggressiveness.
“Obviously, we’d like to improve our production in that area of our offense. We’ve always taken a lot of pride in executing screens well and doing it properly and trying to gain some chunk yardage in those plays. As of late, we haven’t done as well as we would like, and we’re certainly going to work hard to try to improve that.”
Despite the Patriots’ lack of successful screen passes, they remain one of the league’s most productive offenses in terms of yards per catch and yards after the catch. They are fifth in the NFL in YAC this season with 1,467 yards and finished fourth and third in 2016 and 2015, respectively. Their continued success with YAC could be more of a product of big throws down the field; they are fourth in the league with nine plays of 40-plus yards through 11 games, compared to nine all last season. They’re also on pace for 68 plays of 20-plus yards after hitting 56 in 2016.
According to NFL.com’s Next Gen Stats, Tom Brady’s average “Intended Air Yards” is up nearly a full yard at 9.5 per attempt compared to 8.6 last season. This is a product of the presence of downfield threat Brandin Cooks, who is sixth in the NFL with 17 yards per catch.
The loss of Julian Edelman could be a factor in the Patriots’ slower development on screens, but it’s not for a lack of talent. Dion Lewis, James White, Danny Amendola, and even Cooks should at least be capable of running such plays. It could simply be a matter of figuring it out later in the season than usual.
The Patriots offense looks just fine without mixing in screen plays, but Belichick clearly wants to work them in more and execute them better. If they can add that dimension back into the system, they could become even more dangerous than they already are.