FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots have had separation anxiety. In more ways than one.
A theme around the team this week has been how nice it was to get back to a sense of normalcy after hardly being able to practice over the prior two weeks, which showed up in their sloppy performance in a Week 6 loss to the Denver Broncos.
And their wide receivers rate near the bottom of the NFL when it comes to creating open windows for quarterbacks to throw. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, which uses player-tracking devices to assess separation, 29.5% of the targets to Patriots receivers have been thrown into a tight window (one yard or less). That's the highest rate of any wide receiver unit in the NFL.
Overall, per NFL Next Gen Stats, Patriots receivers have had 29.5% of their targets deemed open (three-plus yards of separation), which is sixth lowest in the NFL.
One way to reverse that trend is, naturally, practice. It's something the Patriots, who host the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS), aren't taking for granted after having their first two weeks of October disrupted by COVID-19.
"There's always an opportunity for us to do things that can improve that," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. "I thought there were times, certainly the other day [against Denver] -- and there have been all year -- where we've done a good job.
"There's a lot that goes in to creating separation. The first thing is what the scheme is, what we're asking the players to do. There's release, there's the stem of the route, there's the top of the route and there's the finish of the play. The combination of all those things being done properly, combined with what we're actually doing, we need to do a lot of those things right.
"When we do them right, I think we end up with success. When we don't, we're like every other team in the league where if you make a couple mistakes on these things, you might get covered a little better."
It also should be noted that receivers can create separation, but quarterback Cam Newton still needs to be timely delivering them the ball when that's the case. So it isn't always just on the receivers.
In their 2-3 start, the Patriots have been relying on receivers Damiere Byrd, N'Keal Harry and Julian Edelman as their top three targets.
The speedy Byrd, who up to this point in his career has mostly been a third or fourth option, is essentially the team's No. 1 receiver. He has played 92.6% of the offensive snaps and has 17 receptions for 217 yards, saying this week that a No. 1 role is something any pass-catcher naturally covets.
"Damiere's a smart kid that has good route-running ability and has done a good job picking up our offense," coach Bill Belichick said. "He's been productive."
The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Harry is the No. 2, having played 78.9% of the snaps. He has 18 receptions for 166 yards and one touchdown, and separation isn't necessarily his forte going back to Arizona State. So he needs to win with physicality, which remains a work in progress, with Belichick highlighting the importance of practice when asked about him this week.
"He's way ahead of where he was last year because he's been on the field and he's been practicing," Belichick said. "There was a point in time where we strung together a lot of quality reps, but we need to do that again."
Edelman, who has been limited in practices all season with a knee injury, has been in more of a No. 3 role with preservation in mind. He's played 69.4% of the snaps, well below his 87% clip from 2019, and the separation-type juice he has traditionally brought to the field has come more in flashes this year. Edelman still leads the team with 20 receptions for 302 yards, with McDaniels saying this week, "Certainly Julian is always a big part of what we want to try to do, and I need to do a good job trying to get him going."
Is a Byrd-Harry-Edelman trio good enough for the long haul?
How McDaniels and the Patriots employ their receivers on Sunday -- and what type of separation and production they create -- will be telling because it will come after a full week of practice.
"We work hard at it in practice every week. We try to do a good job of focusing on each part of the route that allows you to gain separation," McDaniels said. "This is a league of tight coverage. There's not going to be a lot of big windows to throw the ball and catch the ball in. You're going to have to do a good job of doing those things right and giving yourself a chance against good people in coverage."