Patriots need better red zone offense to survive gauntlet of schedule

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - OCTOBER 10: Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots reacts against the New York Giants during the fourth quarter in the game at Gillette Stadium on October 10, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - OCTOBER 10: Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots reacts against the New York Giants during the fourth quarter in the game at Gillette Stadium on October 10, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

The Patriots aren’t cashing in when they get to the red zone – and that’s a huge problem with games coming up against some of the best offenses in the NFL.

This week, the New England Patriots travel to take on the Philadelphia Eagles in a rematch of Super Bowl LII. Although the Eagles (5-4) don’t have nearly as impressive of a season record as the Patriots (8-1), they still represent what should be one of the tougher outs on New England’s remaining schedule.

The Pats are in the midst of a brutal five-game stretch that more than makes up for the relatively toothless first half of competition they faced. After losing by 17 points on the road against the Ravens in Week 9, New England now faces the Eagles (away), Cowboys (home), Texans (away), and Chiefs (home) in successive weeks. All five teams currently lead their divisions.

Bill Belichick’s squad is both well-rested after their bye and well-equipped to navigate the meat of their regular season schedule. The Patriots are 3.5-point favorites this weekend against the Eagles in Philly, and they should be favorites in the other three games as well. Of course, they were favored to beat the Ravens too, and we all know what happened there.

The point of the matter is that unless New England slips up and loses four consecutive contests over the next month, they’re still well on their way to making an 11th straight playoff appearance. Even after the embarrassing loss to Baltimore, the Patriots still have the best odds in the NFL to make their fourth straight Super Bowl as well (and to win the game and claim their seventh title).

To turn all those goals into realities, however, the New England offense needs to elevate its level of play to something on par with how the defense and special teams units have performed for the vast majority of this season.

It’s easy to give valid excuses for why the offense hasn’t looked as unstoppable as it has in recent years – Rob Gronkowski’s retirement, Josh Gordon’s release, Antonio Brown’s transgressions, Sony Michel’s slump, etc. – but at the end of the day, those excuses aren’t going to fly in Foxborough.

The good news is that the Patriots seemed to happen upon something in their loss to the Ravens a little over a week ago. The up-tempo, no-huddle approach they used from about the middle of the second quarter until the end of the game wore out Baltimore defenders and allowed the Patriots to move the ball essentially at will.

It’s certainly a strategy that coordinator Josh McDaniels should consider integrating into his game plan moving forward, given the success rate even in a small sample size. But if New England doesn’t turn to the no-huddle as an answer for their streaky offense, the Patriots absolutely need to get better once they’re in the red zone.

As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell pointed out, the Pats lead the NFL in trips to the red zone this season, having advanced the ball within their opponent’s 20-yard line on 40 separate occasions through their first nine games. The problem for the Patriots is that once they get into the red zone, the offense fizzles out. New England ranks 22nd in the league when it comes to actual points per red zone trip, converting those opportunities into touchdowns just 50% of the time.

Probably the biggest culprit for these inefficient numbers doesn’t even play for the team anymore. Gronkowski was borderline unstoppable in the red zone when Brady threw up the back shoulder fade to him in the corner, and his mammoth size and exceptional hands were a lethal enough combination to account for the majority of New England’s red zone scores over the past nine years.

Unless there’s any truth to these never-ending rumors of a comeback though, Gronk isn’t walking back through that door anytime soon to save the day. That means McDaniels and Brady will need to find some other worthy candidates to step up in the red area… and unfortunately that might be a very short list.

There’s always Julian Edelman, who often exhibits an uncanny knack at working his way open away from whatever defender that’s covering him in the end zone. There also might be Mohamed Sanu, who caught his first touchdown as a Patriot when New England unexpectedly found themselves on offense in the red zone after a Ravens giveaway.

And that’s about it. The Pats have gotten just one touchdown from their tight ends all season. Michel, their ideal goal-line power back, has made it into the end zone on just five of his 12 attempts inside the five-yard line, per Barnwell. Phillip Dorsett actually is tied with Edelman for the most receiving touchdowns on the team this year, but all four of his touchdowns came from 25 yards out or more.

Next. Examining Mohamed Sanu's rapid immersion in the offense. dark

New England deserves to be 8-1 after the way their defense has balled out this year. In fact, it’d be a surprise if the Patriots weren’t 8-1 considering how bad some of their opponents turned out to be, too. But for this team to survive the gauntlet of their schedule – and then to make another deep postseason run – they’ll need a much more efficient offense in the red zone from here on out.