FOXBOROUGH — There are a lot of things the Patriots’ offense has done well in recent years, and getting into the end zone after driving inside the opponents’ 20-yard line is one of them.
New England has been first, third, and fourth in the NFL in red-zone efficiency over the last three seasons, and in the middle of the pack in red-zone defense during that time, though the Patriots have struggled defensively in other areas.
But this year, though it’s early, the Patriots find themselves in unfamiliar territory when it comes to their performance in the red zone.
Heading into Sunday’s matchup with the Buccaneers, the offense has scored just two touchdowns in eight red-zone opportunities, which ranks 31st in the league (they also have four field goals).
New England is tied for 26th in red-zone defense, allowing the Bills and Jets three touchdowns in a combined four opportunities (plus one field goal).
Given coach Bill Belichick’s comments this week when the subject was broached, he’s not happy with what he’s seen.
“We have to do better on both sides of the ball in the red area, it’s as simple as that,” he said. “We get our opportunities down there at the goal line, we have to get the ball in the end zone, and we have to hold them to field goal opportunities.
“Our red-area offense and defense certainly need work, need to be better.”
The Patriots’ 25 percent success rate offensively is in stark contrast to the 70 percent (49 touchdowns on 70 chances) they had last year, and the 64 percent (43 touchdowns, 67 chances) from 2011.
And it’s not as if they haven’t had good field position: Of their 31 possessions, seven started on the opponents’ side of the 50-yard line, with two starting in the red zone after turnovers — one each against the Bills and Jets.
In Buffalo, the Patriots turned a first down from the Bills’ 16 after a fumble recovery into a touchdown pass to Julian Edelman, but in the home opener against the Jets, a first down from the 8 thanks to a Devin McCourty interception return yielded just 3 points.
“The red zone is always execution, it gets tight,” said guard Logan Mankins. “If you miss a block, you’re [in trouble], someone doesn’t get open fast enough, the ball gets hurried out. So, it always comes down to execution down there, and guys have to all be on the same page in the red zone.”
As much as New England would like to get something going on offense, this might not be the week it happens: Tampa Bay is first in the league in red-zone defense, allowing one touchdown in six opportunities, including shutting out the Saints on four trips last week.
“There is no question that this is a difficult defense to do a lot of things against,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “They stop the run well, they pressure the quarterback, they create a lot of negative plays and long-yardage situations, and they do a great job in the red zone.
“I think any time that you look at a small sample size of a situational football aspect of a game, you have to understand that it is a couple games, and those areas are always affected most by our overall execution when we get the opportunity.
“We’ve missed some great opportunities in the first couple of games, but [we’re] certainly not dejected about, one, getting down there four times a game or whatever it may be, and then having the chances to score. We just have to do a better job of converting when we get our opportunities. There is no shortcut to that.”
Defensively, the Patriots have only faced two of 29 possessions that began in their territory, both against the Bills. The first was off an interception and led to a touchdown, but the second, after a bad punt, ended with the Bills punting.
The Buccaneers have converted on three of their four red-zone opportunities thus far.
“Good red-zone defense is, whatever the situation is, you’ve got to stop them,” defensive lineman Rob Ninkovich said. “It just comes down to tighter coverage, tighter rush. Everything down there is tighter. You only have 20 yards to really hammer down in there, so everything has to work a little bit better and a little bit tighter.
“That’s football — things happen that are out of your control, so you have to have that whole bend-but-don’t-break mentality, know that it’s our job to come out here and hold them to three.”
From the sounds of it, success inside the 20 has been an emphasis this week for the Patriots on both sides of the ball. Now the challenge is stopping the Buccaneers.