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.
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