Red alert: Patriots’ offense struggling in goal-line situations
FOXBOROUGH — Tough coaching is as much a given in Foxborough as snow in January or Jon Bon Jovi on the in-game speaker system during games, so even after a successful trip to New York the Patriots got back to work Monday and were told exactly what they did wrong.
One area that came up a lot might be surprising, considering how well the Patriots ran the ball against the Jets. The coaching staff was critical of how the offense performed in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
“Yeah, we were successful, but that doesn’t mean it was all right,” center David Andrews said. “That’s one of the things I think here that I’ve noticed is everything’s just so detail-oriented. We scored, but there was a lot of criticism on the goal line, short yardage. We converted, but a lot of criticism there.”
Against the Jets, the Patriots were 4 for 7 in “power running” situations, defined as first and goal, second and goal, third or fourth down with 2 or fewer yards to go. That’s not including an incompletion to Julian Edelman on third and 2 in the first quarter in which James White was flagged for offensive pass interference.
This is not a new problem. The Patriots have converted for a first down or touchdown in 57 percent of those power situations, according to Football Outsiders. That ranks 26th in the NFL, 10 percentage points below the league average. Notably ranked in the top 10: Pittsburgh and Kansas City.
“Short yardage and goal line, there’s not a lot of mystery in some of those things,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “You’ve got to leverage, you want to play — the lower man usually wins in our game — and try to get some movement on the line of scrimmage.”
What’s more, the short-yardage struggles may have something to do with some of the low-percentage throws we’ve seen Tom Brady making in the red zone recently. Power running is most important when the field is condensed. A lack of confidence in the ability of White, Sony Michel, and Cordarrelle Patterson to convert at the goal line could be encouraging Brady to sling some ill-advised throws farther back in the red zone.
The Patriots were 1 for 3 in the red zone against the Jets, settling for field goals after back-to-back incomplete end zone fades to Rob Gronkowski on one drive, and three incomplete throws to White and Gronkowski from the Jets’ 9-yard line on another.
The Patriots have the 13th-best red-zone offense in football, scoring touchdowns on 63.16 percent of their trips inside their opponents’ 20-yard line. That’s not horrible, but it’s not up to the Patriots’ usual standards. Notably ranked in the top three: Pittsburgh (75.76 percent) and Kansas City (71.43).
“Our execution — we’re just going to have to work hard this week and know what we want to get done and then try to go out there and execute it against a really good defense on Sunday in those situations,” said McDaniels, referring to the Vikings’ defense that’s ranked third in the NFL. “Because when we’re down there, at this time of the year, you have to make the most of every opportunity you have to score touchdowns. When we come away with field goals, you feel like it’s an empty trip sometimes, so we’ve got to do a good job of really understanding what the game plan is, going out there and having a great week of practice, and then being able to execute when we have our chances on Sunday.”
If improving in short-yardage situations would help the Patriots in the red zone overall, there’s cause for optimism. Neither Michel nor White’s best talents translate to ground-and-pound situations, but Rex Burkhead, who can return from injured reserve against the Vikings, was effective near the goal line at times last season.
“It’s always good to have Rex back in there,” said White. “He’s a versatile guy, makes plays on special teams. Offensively, running the ball, catching the ball. He just gives us more weapons.”
The Patriots’ offensive line also has dealt with injuries but is healthy now, and it contains three excellent players along the interior in guards Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney, and center Andrews. Brady has two rushing touchdowns and is 3 for 3 on sneaks this year. This group should be pretty good. Minnesota’s defensive line will provide a tough test, but the coaching staff is challenging the players to pass that test and clean up the problem areas from last week.
The Patriots are 8-3, healthy again, and entering the part of the NFL calendar they have historically dominated. This isn’t about them having a bad offense, since they’re the opposite of that. It’s about competing with the top teams in the NFL and going deep into the playoffs. Though the steps they need to take to do that successfully may be small, they’re essential.
“Look, those are tough plays,” McDaniels said. “There’s a reason why they’re not easy, and you always want to try to be successful every chance you have in the goal line or in the short-yardage situations because it usually means the difference between scoring points or keeping possession of the ball.”
Beyond performing better when more players are healthy, the single clearest factor when the Patriots’ offense has been its best is balance. Not necessarily a specific run-pass split, but the ability to run the ball effectively, thereby opening up the short passing game that is so essential to Brady and McDaniels’s unit. Though the Patriots have that balance overall right now, it isn’t translating as well when the field gets short. And as the Patriots heard loud and clear on Monday, that’s something they need to do better if they’re going to reach their goals over the next two months.