FOXBOROUGH — When the Patriots buckled down for some self-scouting during their bye week, one of the main areas they wanted to improve in was red-zone offense.
That work appears to have paid off. Since the bye week, the Patriots have scored on 11 of 14 trips inside the 20-yard line. On Sunday, New England scored on all five of its trips to the red area, just the second time this season they have played a perfect game there. The Patriots were 2 for 2 in the red zone in Week 3 against Houston.
According to Patriots coach Bill Belichick, that’s entirely attributable to his players performing up to their capabilities.
“Yeah, well it’s always good playing and good execution by the players. That’s what everything is about. That’s why you win games, is because players go out there and play well,” Belichick said after the game Sunday.
Scheme has to have something to do with it, though. Tight end Rob Gronkowski, who scored two of the Patriots’ five touchdowns Sunday, described in detail after the game how Belichick and Josh McDaniels were able to find him open looks by pairing him with Brandin Cooks on the same side of the formation for one of his touchdowns.
“That was a play we’ve been working on all week,” Gronkowski said. “It was made for a zone-type coverage . . . So, when the play was called, I put my hand down and saw it was zone, and it’s either if the safety comes and takes me, Cooks gets the ball, or if the safety takes Cooks, I get the ball.”
Cooks and Gronkowski executed, but the idea of the play was born earlier and honed in practice. Cooks hadn’t been used much in the red zone — Tom Brady didn’t target him there until throwing him a touchdown pass from the 11-yard line against the Falcons in Week 7 — but he’s become effective there lately.
Since that Falcons game, Cooks has been targeted six more times in the red zone. Including the touchdown against Atlanta, Brady is 4 for 7 for 21 yards and two touchdowns throwing to Cooks. Cooks has gotten more opportunities since Chris Hogan has been out with a shoulder injury since the Chargers game in Week 8. Hogan had been Brady’s favorite wide receiver in the red zone.
Brady and Hogan are 6 of 11 for 38 yards and four touchdowns in the red zone this season, so it’s not as if Hogan was ineffective there. Without Hogan, though, Brady has had to distribute the ball to more players, making the offense less predictable.
Since the bye week following the Chargers game, Brady has targeted Gronkowski (5 times), Cooks (4), Danny Amendola (4), Rex Burkhead (3), Dwayne Allen (2), Dion Lewis (2), and James White (1) in the red zone.
That’s not to forget Burkhead’s, Lewis’s, and White’s contributions on the ground inside the 20. Lewis has gotten the handoff eight times and Burkhead and White 4 each. In the past three games, the Patriots have called 21 passing plays and 15 runs in the red zone.
Beyond Burkhead’s 2-yard touchdown run, the Patriots weren’t terribly successful on the ground in the red zone against the Dolphins, finishing with five runs for 3 net yards with two tackles for loss and one for no gain. It’s possible that an overall strong day in the running game forced the Dolphins to overcommit to the run, however, opening up opportunities in the passing game.
“I mean, I think we had 200 yards rushing, which is just an unbelievable job just as an offense as a whole. But, you’ve just got to make those plays when you’re open, too. It was good,” Gronkowski said. “I like games like that.”
The shorter the field, the less room a defense has to react. Forced to respect the run and play the pass, with skilled players such as Gronkowski and Cooks on the field, gives defenses a lot to think about — and Brady a lot of options.
McDaniels said on a Tuesday conference call that versatility would again be key Sunday against the Bills.
“They really challenge you to be able to execute a high volume of plays per drive in order to move the ball down the field, convert third downs, and then ultimately finish in the red zone, where they’re very good,” McDaniels said.
The Patriots’ offense is first in the NFL in yards and third in points. If you’ve heard the team’s defensive players talk recently, you know the offense would probably rather those be flipped.
That’s a high-class problem, if you even want to call it that but, since the bye week they’ve been on the path to solving it.