Addressing the New England Patriots red zone issues

FOXBORO, MA - OCTOBER 29: Tom Brady /

The New England Patriots are one of the top teams in the NFL right now, but they’ve struggled in the red zone lately. They need to find a way to get into the end zone.

The New England Patriots offense has no issue moving the ball downfield to get into scoring position. It’s been the scoring that’s been an issue from inside the red zone so far this season.

Tom Brady and the Patriots have an average starting field position of the 28-yard line this season through 8 games, just the 15th best in the NFL. They have the league’s best drive success rate though, at 75.8% and the most yard per drive at 39.01. They’re second in the NFL with 2.52 points per drive even, so why does it feel like they’re underperforming?

Simply put, the Patriots are leaving points on the field as they settle for field goals when they stall in the red zone. That’s fine for Stephen Gostkowski, who is 20 for 23 on field goal attempts this season with a season and career long of 58-yards, but the offense needs to do more. New England is ranked 18th in the NFL in red zone touchdown percentage at 50%. The Green Bay Packers have the best percentage in the league at 73.91%, followed by the Eagles (68%), and the Texans (65.22%). The Patriots are still 3rd in the league in scoring at 27 points per game, but they should be above 30 quite honestly.

New England’s numbers have dipped over the last 4 weeks especially, as they scored  19 points against the Buccaneers, 24 against the Jets, 23 against the Falcons, and 21 against the Chargers. In each of those games, the Patriots should have been able to convert in the red zone a bit more. There were times where they could have blown games wide open, but they had to settle for 3 points instead of 6. Against the Chargers last weekend, the Patriots converted just 25% of their red zone drives into touchdowns. That’s unacceptable.

I’m sure the Patriots coaching staff has used the bye week to visit this issue and others, but here’s how I’d solve it.

Get Gronkowski the Ball

Now, don’t call me crazy here but I don’t think Rob Gronkowski is being targeted enough in the red zone. Chris Hogan is the leader in red zone targets at 13, and Gronk is right behind him at 11 but it doesn’t feel like it’s enough. Last week, he was targeted just once, but he made it count with a touchdown.

Hogan has turned his targets into 6 catches for 4 touchdowns, while all 4 of Gronkowski’s receptions have ended up with him in the end zone. When you get Gronk the ball within the red zone, he’s going to find a way to score. That completion percentage from Brady simply has to improve over the next 8 regular season games and into the playoffs. Right now, he’s completing the pass to Gronkowski just 36.4% of the time from within the opponents 20-yard line. In 2015 that number was at 55%, and in 2014 it was 66.7%. Gronkowski had great numbers in both of those seasons and the Patriots offense rolled easily.

Get Gronk the ball more often in the red zone and we’ll see a spike in points per game and red zone efficiency.

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Pound it in with Gillislee

Mike Gillislee leads the team with 23 rushing attempts in the red zone, but those came mostly early in the year, as did his 4 touchdowns. The Patriots need to get back to the pound it in style they had when LeGarrette Blount was on the team. Gillislee has the size and skill to be that running back.

Last week, the Patriots rushed just 8 times in the red zone. The Chargers were able to play pass defense most of the time because the Patriots offense was so one dimensional. They need to shake things up. Gillislee was the leader in red zone rush attempts but he only had 3. No running back found the end zone from within the red zone either last week. In fact, the Patriots have just one red zone rushing touchdown in their last 4 games. That came in week 6 from Dion Lewis.

In total, the Patriots have handed the ball off to a running back just 22 times over the last 4 games in the red zone. That’s not enough, and I know they have the skills to sniff out the end zone. Give it to Gillislee and let him pound away at the inside, then give it to Lewis, White, or Burkhead for a sweep outside the tackle. The New England offense needs more balance.

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So, the Patriots really don’t have to do anything too crazy to try to fix their red zone issues. They have all the tools they need to improve in this area with Rob Gronkowski and Mike Gillislee. Those two should be the biggest targets and threats for New England when they’re driving down the field for a score. Now, they just have to find a way to execute. We’ll get to see what the Patriots come up with next Sunday night as they take on the Denver Broncos on the road. Let’s hope we see more than 30 points in that one!