Patriots

Look no further than the red zone as to why the Patriots can't score

Look no further than the red zone as to why the Patriots can't score

FOXBORO — The Patriots are so infected by offensive issues right now that it's hard to pinpoint one and say it's the reason they've scored more than 20 points only once since Halloween.

But one area — one situation — stands out, because their struggles there are so glaringly obvious by the numbers. It's where the scoring happens: the red zone.

The Patriots went 1-for-3 on their red zone scoring chances against the Chiefs in Week 14, dropping their success rate in those situations to 48.08 percent for the season. That's 27th in the NFL, and places them behind teams like the Dolphins (16th), Bears (12th) and Bills (10th). It's also a significant drop-off from where they were just a year ago when they scored touchdowns on 62.86 percent of their red zone trips.

The one red zone score the Patriots had in last weekend's loss to Kansas City came on a 10-yard jet-sweep run with running back Brandon Bolden aligned as a slot receiver. 

"It was nice to run it in there with Brandon Bolden," Tom Brady told WEEI's Greg Hill Show this week. "It's always nice when you can run it in. It's a lot easier than trying to squeeze it into those tight coverages in the red area."

The numbers would bear that out. 

According to Sharp Football Stats, NFL teams have a 41 percent success rate collectively in the red zone when throwing this year. Their success rate when running in the red zone is 47 percent. From the 10-yard line and in, teams have a collective success rate of 48 percent passing. Their success rate from 10 yards and in when running the football is 52 percent. 

Yet the Patriots — among the worst red-zone offenses in football this year — have frequently thrown the football more and more as they've gotten closer to the goal line.

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On the season, they have 94 pass attempts inside the red zone versus 71 rush attempts. That's the most red zone pass attempts in football by a wide margin. (The Saints are next with 80.) But as the season has gone on, the run-pass contrast has become even more stark. 

Over their last five games, going back to their loss in Baltimore, the Patriots have passed 39 times in the red zone (most in the NFL) compared to 19 rush attempts. When they've been inside the 10-yard line, they've passed 15 times compared to eight rush attempts. Inside the five, they've passed 13 times compared to three rush attempts. 

"It's always best if you can hand the ball off and run it in," Bill Belichick told WEEI's Ordway, Merloni and Fauria Show last week. "It's harder to throw down there just based on the number of players they have on defense and the amount of space you have to throw on offense. Everything is a lot tighter. 

"But the running game is tighter too because the secondary is closer to the line of scrimmage and safeties are like added linebackers so it's harder to get a hat on everybody. But the easiest thing to do is to hand the ball off and run it in if you can do that. That's always preferable than trying to throw it into a tight space with more defenders. But if they bring enough people up there or you're too close to the goal line and you have unblocked players then that's not really the answer either."

On this topic, everyone seems to agree. Running the football down close to the goal line is the most efficient way to do things. Even the advanced statistics — which often highlight the efficiency of NFL passing games — suggest that running effectively in the red zone and at the goal line is particularly valuable. According to this offseason piece by FiveThirtyEight.com's Josh Hermsmeyer, league-wide completion percentage drops about nine points from an opponent's 20-yard line to its three-yard line, making the ability to run down there critical.

So why have the Patriots bailed on their running game when down in close? 

Their running game, in general, has struggled for much of the season and they currently rank 29th in yards per carry (3.5). That's one reason. But opposing defenses have also, at times, sold out to stop them on the ground in the red zone — probably because they like their chances to stop the Patriots' passing-game weapons.

Last week Josh McDaniels pointed to a play against the Texans when the Patriots had a first-and-goal situation at the seven-yard line. Against an eight-man box for Houston, Sony Michel took a handoff and was tackled near the line of scrimmage by a safety. Brady's next two passes went incomplete and the Patriots kicked a field goal. 

"[The safety] was in the backfield, and that's the way we were getting played, quite honestly," McDaniels said. "Down there against them — and a few other teams the last so many weeks here — they're trying to make it difficult, trying to force you to do something, be one-dimensional . . . 

"Our goal is to always try to be as efficient as we can be and do the thing that gives us the best chance to have success. I certainly am not opposed to being more run than pass, or more pass than run, if it's going to be successful for our team. 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."

Last week against the Chiefs, the Patriots ran it successfully twice on their first two red-zone snaps. After a blocked punt, James White carried for nine yards to get the Patriots to the Chiefs 10-yard line. Then Bolden took it around the edge to score. Perhaps that was an indication of where McDaniels was hoping to go with his red zone attack. 

On their next trip, it appeared as though the Patriots scored on a play that — as CBS color analyst Tony Romo pointed out — could be classified as a type of run play even though it was a short pass. Brady found N'Keal Harry going in motion for a very shallow under route, and Harry took it into the end zone after a couple of broken tackles. He simply wasn't deemed by the officials to have scored.

Three outside runs in the red zone. Three successful plays. Maybe there's something to work with there moving forward.

The Patriots had three more chances to punch it in after that officiating gaffe, remember. They ran for a loss of two after rushing to the line because they thought they'd scored on the Harry play. On second down, Brady threw to Jakobi Meyers, who dropped it. (Another red zone touchdown off the board.) On third down, Brady was sacked. 

On both dropbacks, both Julian Edelman and James White were doubled. On both dropbacks, the Chiefs started the down with what looked like well-populated fronts that might've discouraged run plays. Unable to run and unable to pass to their top options, the Patriots stalled deep in opponent territory. 

Later in the game, on the final Patriots drive, they ran another pass-but-really-run play when White took an end-around pitch. He was tackled for a loss of two by an unblocked Chris Jones. Three passes followed, finishing with an incompletion to Edelman from the three-yard line that ended the game. 

There's no easy fix to what ails the Patriots in the red zone right now. It's not as simple as more rush attempts and fewer passes. Defenses can dictate how things will go to an extent. McDaniels isn't going to ask his players to run head-first into a wall at the line of scrimmage simply because the numbers say it's better to run. But passing hasn't worked either.

Will the Patriots continue to go to the air and hope that a third option — a healthier Mohamed Sanu or Meyers or Harry, perhaps? — can emerge outside of Edelman and White? Or will they scrap the passing attack because it has them near the bottom of the league in red zone offense, and try to grind out touchdowns against imposing fronts instead? 

Facing a long list of issues right now, executing key four-point plays — finding the edge that will lead to touchdowns over field goals — has to be at or near the top of the to-do list for McDaniels and his offense.

Curran's Power Rankings: Pats keep slipping in AFC>>>>>

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Here's why a lot of Patriots recent draft picks have Senior Bowl experience

Here's why a lot of Patriots recent draft picks have Senior Bowl experience

Bill Belichick was there. Josh McDaniels was there. The Patriots had a large contingent down in Mobile, Ala. for this week's Senior Bowl practices (the game will air Saturday on NFL Network at 2:30 p.m.), which should come as no surprise.

Just look at how the Patriots have drafted of late. 

In 2019, they selected Jarrett Stidham, Byron Cowart and Jake Bailey -- all of whom participated in the Senior Bowl. They also signed undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers, who played in the game. 

In 2018, they grabbed Isaiah Wynn in the first round, Duke Dawson, Ja'Whaun Bentley and Braxton Berrios after they'd competed in the Senior Bowl.

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Three of their four draft picks from 2017, plus two undrafted rookies, were in the Senior Bowl. 

From 2013-16, they brought aboard 20 Senior Bowl participants as rookies.

"The great thing about the Senior Bowl is that you're seeing some of the best players," Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said last spring. 

"There have actually been some underclassmen who have been incorporated into that mix. So you're seeing them against good competition and it's a different dynamic or different situation that they've been placed in. You're kind of taking them out of their environment that they've been in and kind of giving them something new and seeing how they handle it against good people."

The small-school players -- or the players who are asked to do something they didn't do much as collegians -- are the ones who have an opportunity to really land on radars during Senior Bowl work. For the Patriots, who constantly harp on the benefit of having seen players work against great competition on a regular basis when they hail from an SEC program, seeing some of the best in the country work against one another matters.

"It’s one thing if they do it against a lower-level team," Caserio said back in 2016, when asked about the Senior Bowl. "I mean, look, not all teams are created equal. Not all conferences are created equal. That’s just a fact. We can’t control that. So when you can see them actually play against really good players or good players that are at a comparable level of competition that they’re going to see every Sunday, that has to be a part of [the evaluation], no question."

The next year, the Patriots took two Senior Bowlers from smaller programs: Youngstown State's Derek Rivers and Troy's Antonio Garcia. 

"Where [the Senior Bowl] probably helps a little bit is players on a lower level that maybe haven’t competed against the same level of competition," Caserio said back in 2017. "Obviously, they’re making a big jump. . . Garcia was down there. That’s going to be a big jump in competition because this is what they’re going to be playing against. 

"With all due respect to whatever conference Youngstown State is in, there’s not a lot of NFL players in that conference. I mean, that’s just the way that it is. You’re going to have to see him against NFL competition, which the Senior Bowl is usually a pretty good indication of that because you’re talking about the top seniors in the country. It’s a part of the process. You’re not making a decision based off of that, but maybe a player who doesn’t have as much experience against that level, you’re going to see how he fares, and then you just kind of continue to move forward."

Some small-school prospects who may have caught Belichick's eye this week? 

Dayton tight end Adam Trautman was already considered one of the better tight ends in the draft class and seemed to only help his stock.

Safety Kyle Dugger -- who hails from Division II Lenoir-Rhyne University -- impressed. Ditto for Division III offensive lineman Ben Bartch out of Saint John's, who saw rushers from Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Ole Miss and other high-end programs and reportedly held his own.

Perhaps the most recent success story out of Senior Bowl week for the Patriots wasn't with a small-school prospect, though. It might've been with Shaq Mason, a guard coming out of a run-heavy system at Georgia Tech. The Patriots simply hadn't seen him do much in the way of pass protection for the Yellow Jackets.

But Mason got to the Senior Bowl, took to the coaching he received, and the Patriots took notice. 

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"The thing I’ll say about Shaq," Belichick said after drafting Mason in 2015, "is just watching him at the Senior Bowl, I mean it was only one week, but he made a huge improvement just in those, whatever it was, four or five practices, whatever it was down there. His stance is different. You could see each day progressively how he was taking to the coaching down there and his footwork and his hand placement and his body position. I know it was basic. It wasn’t like it was a big scheme thing at the Senior Bowl, but just doing things on a daily basis better than the day before, looking more comfortable doing them. And it was different than what they did at Georgia Tech."

Big school. Small school. Everyone had something to gain in Mobile this week. And that includes the Patriots. That's why -- with more time off this year than recent years -- they were well represented down there.


 

NFL Rumors: Patriots hiring ex-Rams assistant offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch

NFL Rumors: Patriots hiring ex-Rams assistant offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch

The New England Patriots reportedly have made an addition to their coaching staff.

According to Jim McBride of The Boston Globe, they've hired ex-Los Angeles Rams assistant offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch.

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Fisch's official role with the Patriots offense is to be determined. But now that there's an opening at wide receivers coach with Joe Judge joining the New York Giants, Fisch could be a candidate for the job.

He brings plenty of experience to the table having coached Denver Broncos wide receivers in 2008 and Michigan receivers from 2015-16. Fisch also coached Seattle Seahawks quarterbacks in 2010 and was the Jacksonville Jaguars' offensive coordinator from 2013-14.