FOXBOROUGH — The NFL regular season is nearing its end, and it doesn’t look as if a reinvention is coming for the Patriots’ offense as it did last year, when a sputtering unit embraced a new identity built around the running game to great effect. Instead, the Patriots are hoping small changes, fewer mistakes, and better execution will be enough.
It seems like a steeper hill to climb. There are some minor improvements that would make a bigger difference, though, and red-zone offense has to be high on that list.
Those are the plays that turn no points, or 3 points, into 7. They matter. The Patriots are 24th in the NFL in red-zone offense. They were 15th last year, and fifth, eighth, fourth, and ninth the four years before that. What’s changed?
“I’ve got to do a better job at trying to find the right answers each week and put our guys in the right position and hope that we can go out there and execute well and get it in the end zone each time we’re down there,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said this past week.
Take a deeper dive into what’s gone wrong in the red zone and you’ll zero in on the passing game.
The Patriots are 30th in the NFL in red-zone passing, meaning that they score a touchdown or convert a first down on 23.1 percent of plays there. Inside their opponents’ 10-yard line they’re 32nd, succeeding only 17.2 percent of the time. With 3 yards or fewer to go they’re 31st, better only than the Dolphins, who haven’t run a successful passing play in that area.
The closer you get, the worse it looks. With that little space, it’s generally more efficient to run the ball, so fretting over poor numbers passing from the 1- or 2-yard line isn’t fretting over the problem that’s having the biggest impact. The fact that the Patriots are a league-worst from inside the 10, and near that in the red zone in general, though, is significant.
That’s especially true since their rushing numbers in the red zone aren’t that bad, and could get better. New England is 21st in red-zone rushing in general, 18th inside the opponents’ 10-yard line, and ninth with 3 yards or fewer left before the end zone.
This could improve still now that the left tackle spot has been shored up by Isaiah Wynn, who has played well and appeared to make a difference in the run game. Running to the left in the red zone has been a weakness, with the Patriots getting a successful play only 26 percent of the time when running to the left side in the red zone, according to Sharp Football Stats. When running up the middle or to the right in the red zone, the Patriots have been successful 37 percent of the time. If Wynn keeps playing well it’s fair to think the success rate to the left side will improve, which would improve their red-zone rushing overall.
The thing that’s curious is that, lately, the Patriots have been passing more when they get near the goal line, even though that’s the less-effective part of their attack.
In the Patriots’ first six games this season, they ran 32 passing plays and 35 rushing plays in the red zone. In the six games since, they’ve run 44 passing plays and 29 rushing plays in the red zone. It’s more dramatic if you look at their play selection inside the 10-yard line, where the Patriots threw the ball on 13 plays and ran it on 23 in their first six games, and have thrown it on 16 plays and run it on 14 in the six games since.
“I think it’s always a function of the way you get played and what you have confidence in,” McDaniels said. “To me, there’s times we go into a situation where we have more than one call available to us and we’re trying to get to the best one. There’s times where we just go ahead and make a call and live with it.”
McDaniels referenced a play in the first quarter of last Sunday’s loss to the Texans when the Patriots had first and goal from the 7-yard line. This was one of those times when they chose to “make a call and live with it,” running the ball even though Houston was loaded up against it. It did not wind up particularly productive; Sony Michel was tackled by safety Tashaun Gipson after a 2-yard gain. McDaniels said that, recently, defenses have been giving the Patriots a lot of those looks, and that they’ve been throwing a bit more in general because they’ve had to play from behind at times.
“That’s the way we were getting played, quite honestly,” McDaniels said. “Down there against [the Texans] and a few other teams the last so many weeks here, where they’re trying to make it difficult, trying to force you to do something, be one-dimensional.”
The red zone is different because it’s more condensed. The adage about forcing your opponent to defend “every blade of grass” is especially true. Predictability kills, which is why it’s harmful all around if one part of a team’s red-zone offense is ineffective the way the Patriots’ passing game has been there. It reduces the number of threats the defense has to sincerely worry over in that area.
And it sure seems like it would help if some receiver not named Julian Edelman or James White, clearly Tom Brady’s favorite targets in the red zone, could prove himself worthy of defensive attention there. The players who seem like the best options to do so are Mohamed Sanu, N’Keal Harry, Ben Watson, and Matt LaCosse, but since none of them have done so yet, Edelman and White are getting a ton of attention.
“There’s been some different looks — safeties, corners, linebackers,” White said. “It doesn’t matter to me honestly, I just want to go out there and win my matchup. Just have confidence, run the right routes, and no matter who’s covering I want to go out there and win my route and be available for Tom.”
But White did acknowledge he’s been covered by defensive backs “a little more” than in the past. That will continue as long as no one else proves a worthy threat.
It’s a guessing game as to which of those possible targets is most capable of making a difference down the stretch. Brady does not seem to trust Harry, who has not had a lot of time to develop. Sanu is still limited by an ankle injury.
It seems as if Watson and LaCosse could be making a greater impact, perhaps even together. With both of them healthy and available, the Patriots could use two-tight-end sets more often. Advantages to 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two receivers) include its disguisability and the fact that it gets players on the field who can, to some extent, block and catch, which helps in the red zone.
It’s worth noting that the Patriots haven’t been great out of 12 personnel this season — they’ve run successful plays out of that grouping only 41 percent of the time, according to Sharp Football Stats — but they’ve also only run it on 9 percent of their plays, including ones where tight end Eric Tomlinson lined up at fullback. A successful play, according to Sharp Football Stats, gets 40 percent of the yards-to-gain on a first down, 50 percent on a second down, and 100 percent on a third or fourth down.
Given the team’s personnel limitations, it’s hard to pin New England’s red-zone problems on coaching. It’s worth noting, though, that Chad O’Shea, who was in charge of red-zone offense for at least the last two seasons, currently has the Dolphins ranked fourth in the NFL in red-zone success rate. O’Shea left the Patriots last offseason to become offensive coordinator in Miami.
“He’s incredibly responsible for all of our success in the red zone,” McDaniels said of O’Shea in January 2018.
Now, O’Shea is gone. The Patriots’ other red-zone wizard, Rob Gronkowski, is gone too. Without them, and with their other struggles, the Patriots are searching for answers near the goal line.
So far, they’ve been coming up short.