FOXBOROUGH — Through the opening two weeks of the season, the Patriots ranked dead-last in the NFL in red zone touchdown percentage. They connected on just two of their first seven opportunities for a conversion rate of 28.6 percent.
Their last three weeks, though? The Patriots have scored a touchdown on nine of their 13 red zone trips for a conversion rate of 69.2 percent.
“It’s taken some time,” tight end Hunter Henry said Thursday. “Playing with each other, being with each other, being in this offense, kind of getting a feel for everything. There were a lot of new guys coming together.”
The offense welcomed a rookie quarterback as well as several new skill players this offseason, making growing pains inevitable.
The Week 7 contest against the lowly Jets certainly helped kickstart the group, as the Patriots scored on all six of their opportunities from inside New York’s 20-yard line. Two were passing touchdowns, while the other four were on the ground.
On the season, the Patriots have converted 54.8 percent of their red zone trips for a touchdown, which is tied for 23rd in the league. The distribution is pretty evenly split: nine rushing scores, eight passing.
Henry is New England’s leading receiver inside the red zone, notching all five of his touchdowns this season in that area. Since Week 4, Henry has logged at least one target inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. He and fellow tight end Jonnu Smith are the team’s two most targeted players in the red zone, each garnering 20.5 percent of the share.
Running back Damien Harris, meanwhile, is New England’s leading rusher inside the red zone, scoring five of his seven touchdowns this season in that area. Harris has received 56.3 percent of red-zone handoffs.
Last week, against the Carolina Panthers, the Patriots converted on their first two red zone trips thanks to plays from their most popular contributors: a 3-yard rush by Harris and a 7-yard catch by Henry. On their third and final red zone trip, they settled for a field goal from the 19-yard line after three straight incomplete passes.
“When you get into the red zone, the field shrinks, obviously,” Henry said. “It’s hard. There’s not a lot of room to work with. It definitely is a tough part of the field to be successful. We have to be really detailed, and I feel like we’ve been able to execute on those details these past few weeks in a better way than we were previously at the beginning of the year.”
While the performance has improved, there are still series where the offense has sputtered.
The Week 8 contest against the Los Angeles Chargers started off strong, with Harris punching the ball in from the 1-yard line. But that would be New England’s only red zone score. The Patriots reached the 1-yard line again only to turn the ball over on downs, and then settled for two field goals after reaching the Chargers’ 6- and 12-yard lines.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said he would like to have back the sequence where the Patriots threw the ball on both third and fourth down from the 1-yard line.
But the offense as a whole sounds encouraged about their recent performance.
“We’re always going to continue to get better and strive to continue to get more,” Henry said. “We’re all continuing to grow as a group. Like I said, we were new this year to this offense. Each week we get game reps is huge.”
Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne echoed that sentiment.
“Our potential is rising each and every time,” Bourne said. “I feel like we don’t have a ceiling. The potential of everybody is high. Everybody is just getting more comfortable each and every week, finding their role and getting better in their role. Everybody’s just been doing really well.
“The pieces are coming together. We’re getting the results we want.”
Of New England’s remaining seven opponents, three rank in the top 10 in red zone defense. The Buffalo Bills are No. 1 in the league, allowing opponents to score a touchdown on just 40.9 percent of their red zone trips. Tennessee ranks ninth (52.8 percent), while Miami ranks 10th (54.1 percent).
The Patriots are hopeful they can keep up their progress.
“The more we go on, the better we have to get,” said Bourne. “If we just keep playing well, we can build off of it.”