FOXBORO — It’s been almost three years since the Patriots fielded an average red-zone offense.
So far this season, the Pats rank dead last in red zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns on 28.6% of their possessions. Last year, they completed seven touchdown passes inside their opponents’ 20-yard line, fewest in the league, and ranked 24th in red-zone scoring overall. With Tom Brady in 2019, they ranked one spot worse.
The Patriots’ problems back then were tied to poor weaponry. Brady couldn’t overcome it, neither could Cam Newton. Those problems have since been addressed.
It’s the famous “little things” that players and coaches so often reference during the week and hammer after losses that have dogged them.
“I think everybody just has to do their job to the best of their ability. There’s not particularly one guy who’s messing up everything or one play-call that’s not working. It’s just, we need everybody on the same page, executing to the best of their ability,” Pats wide receiver Jakobi Meyers said Friday. “And when the time comes, it’ll come. Those guys get paid, too, to make plays on that side of the ball. So, I say we go out there and do our job, and it’ll all follow through.”
On their five failed red-zone trips, the Pats have fumbled once, dropped a pass, been flagged for holding and allowed Damien Harris to get repeatedly stuffed during a fourth-quarter drive and garbage time. Their other red-zone flop was a credit to Jets safety Marcus Maye, who broke up a pass on second-and-9 last weekend before a third-down checkdown to James White ushered Nick Folk on for another field goal.
Earlier this week, Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones took responsibility for failing to thread more end-zone throws against tight coverage.
“They’ve called good plays, and Josh has done a good job preparing me in the red zone knowing what the other team is going to do and stuff,” Jones told WEEI’s “Merloni &Fauria.” “I definitely can just have those conversations with him to let him know that I can do better because I feel like it’s more on me than anybody else. I can make those tight-window throws. I have in the past, and we can be better.
The bad news is the Saints should force more tight throws Sunday. Through two weeks, their opponents — including Green Bay and reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers — have scored touchdowns on just 40% of their red-zone trips. And it’s unlikely the Pats can pound the rock, with New Orleans again ranking among the league’s elite against the run with an average 2.8 yards per carry allowed.
“This has been a top run defense now for the last few years, and they’re really, really hard to block and run the ball effectively against,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “They’ve got a real good third-down scheme. Very experienced defense, and especially in the secondary are the guys that have played a lot of football, and they really know what they’re doing.”
Now for the good news: the Pats have matchups they’ve yet to exploit.
Tight end Jonnu Smith, who scored eight touchdowns last year in Tennessee, is a monster against man-to-man coverage. Safeties Malcolm Jenkins and PJ Williams have struggled in 1-on-1 coverage the past few seasons, and the Patriots should be able to isolate them in passing situations. If Smith fails to draw one of them, Hunter Henry should.
Henry, at 6-foot-5, could snag either a fade throw or a high seam pass, like he did early in training camp before suffering a shoulder injury. Last year with the Chargers, Henry beat Saints linebacker Demario Davis for a 3-yard touchdown during a close. He’s has also navigated zone coverage expertly throughout his career.
Beyond their tight ends, the Pats have Meyers, another savant against soft zone. There’s also Nelson Agholor, who has the team’s only receiving touchdown this year and can stretch the defense on fly sweeps and screens, if not traditional passes. White bears watching, too, having scored last week on a 7-yard run from shotgun, which to that point had been a pass tell for the Patriots.
On Wednesday, Pats defensive back Jonathan Jones revealed the difficulty of defending in the red zone is covering every inch of grass sideline to sideline.
Four days later, Jones’ words might serve as a guide for his offensive teammates versus New Orleans: get horizontal, and the soar back up the league’s red-zone rankings.