FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Head coach Bill Belichick's New England Patriots (6-2) are certainly happy to head into the Week 9 bye with a four-game winning streak and sitting atop the AFC East following Sunday's 21-13 win over the Chargers at Gillette Stadium.
But that does mean the defending champs, who have been held below 25 points in four straight games for the first time since 2009 and have seen five of their last six games decided by one score, are happy with the way they are playing at the midpoint of the 2017 season.
There are certainly issues Belichick and his troops will try to clean up over the two weeks between games, issues that were on display again against Los Angeles.
Part of the Patriots' scoring problem is a result of a newfound inefficiency in the red zone. New England converted just one of its four trips inside the 20 against the Chargers and settled for six field-goal tries overall on the afternoon. After scoring touchdowns on just two of five red-zone trips a week earlier against Atlanta, quarterback Tom Brady admits the group is facing "struggles" to finish drives.
"That's a good word for it," Brady admitted. "I think we just have to do a better job of that. I know I've said that about 100 times this year, but it's tough. I mean, we're trying. It's just the execution is coming up a little short in critical times."
Defensively, there have been a variety of issues from coverage and communication breakdowns in the back end to the lack of a consistent pass rush. But one constant has been too many big plays allowed, including Melvin Gordon's 87-yard run to open the scoring on Sunday afternoon.
New England has given up four touchdowns longer than 58 yards this season, 29 total passes longer than 20 yards and 16 runs longer than 10 yards.
"We're giving up too many big plays on defense and can't convert on third down in the red area. Those are two huge issues," Belichick said in the aftermath of another tight win.
There have also been too many penalties. Six more came on Sunday against L.A., giving New England five or more penalties in all eight games it played and 59 total during the first half of the season.
As much as the Patriots have things to tighten up and improve upon in all three phases as it builds toward another possible postseason run, the team has fought through early-season struggles to put itself in good position as it enters the bye.
"We've got to improve this week," safety Devin McCourty said of the bye. "It's a good time, especially halfway through. We go back throughout the season, see what we've been doing wrong, see what we've been doing well. We get to self-evaluate, obviously get healthy and then move forward and get ready for the back half. (There are) eight games to go. We obviously have a chance at 6-2 to do some good things. We've got to just take advantage of this week so we're ready to go for the rest of the season."
"Starting 0-1 and then being 6-2 -- you know, a lot of mental toughness," Brady added. "So, that's good, and we've got to keep it going. You know, biggest games are ahead of us, so we're going to have to go play well."
New England ran the ball 32 times in Sunday's win over the Chargers, but was only able to pick up 97 yards thanks to a 3.0-yard average. Midway through the season the Patriots have a mediocre ground attack, averaging just 3.9 yards per carry as a team.
Running back Mike Gillislee, a restricted free-agent newcomer from the Bills who led the NFL with a 5.7-yard average last fall as a backup in Buffalo, is averaging just 3.6 yards per attempt on a team-high 98 carries. Running back Dion Lewis has given the group a little boost with a 4.7-yard average on his 58 carries on the year, but he was held to a 2.9-yard average on his season-high 15 attempts against the Chargers.
Put it all together and it's simply not good enough in the eyes of head coach Bill Belichick.
"In the end, you have to block them. At some point, a good back needs to gain some yards on his own and break a tackle or make somebody miss on a player that's not blocked," Belichick said after dissecting the film of the Chargers game. "So, we've got to do a better job of running the ball, period. That's coaching the running game, designing the running game, blocking the running game, running the ball and all the other things associated with it. (We) need to have more production than what we had yesterday or, I'd say, what we had overall over a period of time. We need to get more out of it."
Quarterback Tom Brady's Halloween costume was kind of a big story the last couple days in New England.
After Sunday afternoon's win over the Chargers, Brady declined to reveal what he would be dressing up as on Tuesday's candy-collecting holiday.
"I think my wife picked something out, so I don't want to give it away," Brady said of supermodel Gisele. "They'll find me in my neighborhood. It will be a nice costume. People won't know who I am, but it will be fun."
Monday morning during his weekly interview on WEEI Radio in Boston, Brady was a bit more revealing. Apparently his costume is a bit of a nod to his extreme diet and TB12 training method that's been at the center of his existence in recent years.
"I think we're some kind of avocado and toast," Brady told WEEI.
NOTES: CB Stephon Gilmore (concussion/ankle) missed his third straight game, after initially being listed as questionable to play against the Chargers following limited practice action all last week. ... CB Eric Rowe (groin) was once again ruled out on Friday's practice report, missing his fourth straight game and fifth in the last sixth to the injury. ... LB Dont'a Hightower (pectoral) missed his third game of the season after undergoing surgery midweek to repair the torn muscle. Though he currently remains on the active roster, the Pro-Bowl captain is expected to miss the rest of the season. ... DL Malcom Brown (ankle) missed the first game of his NFL career after failing to get on the practice field last week with the injury suffered a week earlier against the Falcons. ... DL Geneo Grissom was a healthy scratch for the second straight week after the practice squad call-up had played mostly on special teams in the previous four weeks. ... WR Chris Hogan (shoulder) left the fourth quarter of Sunday's win and did not return after taking a hit from the helmet of Chargers LB Hayes Pullard, who was also tended to by trainers after the post-catch collision. Hogan was wearing a sling in the postgame locker room and was scheduled to undergo an MRI on Monday. Hogan was also previously dealing with a rib injury. ... RT Marcus Cannon (ankle) limped off in the second quarter of the game with the Chargers and did not return. Cannon popped back up on the injury report with the ankle issue on Friday having previously dealt with an ankle injury dating back to late September. ... WR Danny Amendola (knee) played his usual reserve role on offense and special teams against the Chargers after missing practice last Wednesday to the injury. The veteran has a history of knee injuries that have plagued him in recent years.
REPORT CARD VS. CHARGERS
--PASSING OFFENSE: C-plus -- Aside from more than a dozen completions to what were many times uncovered backs out of the backfield, New England continued to struggle with efficiency in the passing game, especially going just 1 of 4 on red-zone trips and settling for six field-goal attempts overall. Tom Brady completed 32 of a season-high 47 pass attempts for 333 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions for a 94.5 passer rating. RB Rex Burkhead caught all seven passes thrown his way for 68 yards, while RB James White hauled in five of his six targets for 85 yards. TE Rob Gronkowski had five catches for 57 yards, including a wide-open 2-yard touchdown reception. WR Brandin Cooks, who came in averaging 19.2 yards per catch, had just 26 yards on five receptions. Brady was sacked three times and saw the pressure increase as the game wore on. New England piled up impressive yards through the air and was a solid 9 of 19 on third down, but the red-zone failures left Brady and Co. expressing disappointment afterward.
--RUSHING OFFENSE: C-minus -- A New England ground game that had been on the uptick in recent weeks with four straight games averaging better than 4.2 yards per carry never got things going against the Chargers' 31st-ranked rush defense. Overall, the Patriots ran it 32 times for just 97 yards and a 3-yard average. None of the five New England players to run the ball averaged better than 3.8 yards per carry, and Dion Lewis was the only player with a run longer than 10 yards. Lewis paced the Patriots in carries for the third straight game, picking up 44 yards on his 15 attempts. Mike Gillislee had just 34 yards on his 11 carries on a day when the New England line just couldn't create much space for the runners against a front that's struggled previously on the ground.
--PASS DEFENSE: B -- Continuing to have to play without two of its top three corners, New England put forth another solid performance against Philip Rivers and Co. The veteran quarterback completed 17 of 30 attempts -- including 4 of 5 throws in the first half -- for 212 yards with one touchdown and an interception on the final play of the game for a 76.0 passer rating. The Chargers challenged fill-in cornerback Johnson Bademosi successfully at times, but didn't throw nearly as much as they probably could/should have. Malcolm Butler allowed Travis Benjamin a free release off the line and then chased the receiver on a 24-yard touchdown pass, the Pro-Bowl cornerback immediately gesturing toward Pro-Bowl safety Devin McCourty to indicate there was some type of miscommunication or coverage breakdown. Benjamin also had a long catch-and-run touchdown in the third quarter called back on an offensive pass interference call on a pick, a flag that the visitors openly questioned afterward. New England's pass rush was non-existent all afternoon, but the much-maligned secondary put together another solid effort that was good enough to get the win as Jonathan Jones sealed the deal with an interception at the goal line as time expired.
--RUSH DEFENSE: C-minus -- One play really did in the Patriots' run defense and kept the Chargers in the game early. Cassius Marsh lost the left edge and watched Melvin Gordon go 87 yards around right end for the game's opening score. Gordon, who averaged just 3.4 per rush coming in, finished with 14 attempts for 132 yards and a 9.4 average thanks to the long score. Overall the Chargers ran it 21 times for 157 yards and a 7.5 average, most allowed by the Patriots since the Chiefs ran for 185 on opening night. Aside from the long edge run, New England's front actually did a decent job playing its first game without Pro-Bowl LB Dont'a Hightower as well as DT Malcom Brown. The Patriots used a number of run blitzes from its inside linebackers to try to solidify the undermanned front. But the one big play ruined the day.
--SPECIAL TEAMS: B-minus -- Despite Stephen Gostkowski missing two of his six field-goal attempts -- both from 43 yards -- New England actually had a pretty dominant day in the kicking game. The home squad took advantage of a huge mistake by Benjamin when he muffed a punt return and then retreated trying to make a play. He was tackled by Brandon King just behind the goal line for a second-quarter safety. New England's coverage was also impressive on kickoffs, Gostkowski's high, short kicks enticing the Chargers into four ill-advised returns that averaged just 18 yards. It's an area the Patriots have excelled in all season. Gostkowski did hit kicks from 25, 36, 43 and 26 yards to provide key points in the tight win. And Lawrence Guy got a finger on Nick Novak's 51-yard field-goal attempt to help induce the miss to close the opening drive of the game. Lewis added a 71-yard kickoff return following a Chargers penalty, though New England could not take advantage of the short field due to one of Gostkowski's misses. Still, the punt and kick coverage was key in the win, as were Gostkowski's 12 points.
--COACHING: B-minus -- New England clearly wanted to run the ball against the Chargers' previously-porous run defense, but never was able to really get the job done. That fixation on running the ball in the red zone, in particular, led to some of the poor execution in that area and probably helped keep the scoring down overall. The Patriots did take advantage of suspect and at times non-existent coverage on running backs to put up more than 150 yards through the air to White and Co. Defensively, coordinator Matt Patricia deserves credit for a pass defense that's putting up the good fight without two top cornerbacks. He also utilized a wrinkle with the inside linebackers coming on run blitzes much of the afternoon to help fortify a defensive front that is banged up on the interior. Certainly, New England had a massive edge on special teams, where Joe Judge's units covered and returned well, blocked a kick and scored 14 of the Patriots' 21 points. Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick need to find a way to jump-start the offense again and become more efficient in the red zone. Otherwise, New England's coaches seem to be rounding the team into midseason form.