The New England Patriots offense is one of the best in the league by just about every measure. Through 11 games, the Patriots rank seventh in points per game, eighth in yards per game, and seventh in Football Outsiders offensive DVOA. However, despite being one of the best overall units in the league, the New England Patriots red zone offense is remarkably pedestrian.
So far on the season, the Patriots offense scores a touchdown on 63.2% of their red zone drives. This rate, while not terrible by any means, currently ranks 13th in the NFL. When Tom Brady is your quarterback, 13th simply isn’t good enough. It’s an offensive league now more than ever, and the Patriots will need to improve this to improve their chances of winning their sixth Super Bowl title.
How To Improve New England Patriots Red Zone Offense – The Passing Game
Feed Rob Gronkowski
This one may seem obvious, but the Patriots need to give their best playmaker a chance to make plays. Rob Gronkowski has been surprisingly absent from the Patriots red zone offense all season long. Through 11 games, Gronkowski has seen just five red zone targets, none of which coming from within the five-yard line.
A lot of this could be due to health. Gronkowski has battled through injury basically all season long and hasn’t looked like his dominant self. However, after missing basically a month of football to rest his body, Gronkowski should be ready for the rest of the season. He certainly looked good in Week 12 when he recorded three catches for 56 yards and one touchdown against the New York Jets.
However, the Patriots will need to be smart with his usage. As pointed out on Matt Chatham’s Real Thing Patriots Podcast (a fantastic listen, by the way), Gronkowski is struggling to haul in jump-ball fade passes. Gronkowski might not be the same player on jump balls, but he’s still a dominant force as a route runner. New England should work on incorporating more slant routes and out routes into Gronkowski’s repertoire. He’s the most dominant red zone threat of his generation, and it’s criminal not to use him near the endzone.
Spread the Love Around
According to SharpFootballStats.com, the Patriots have attempted 44 red zone passing attempts. 54.5% of those targets have gone to either James White or Julian Edelman. Red zone target distribution has been maddeningly predictable, which obviously limits how successful the group as a whole can be.
It’s not even like White and Edelman are vastly superior options to what the Patriots already have. Edelman has a 58% success rate on red zone targets while White’s success rate sits at 54%. By comparison, Chris Hogan has a 63% success rate, Phillip Dorsett has a 53% success rate, and Rob Gronkowski has a 56% success rate.
These are small sample sizes, so going solely by the numbers isn’t a perfect strategy. That said, the Patriots have players capable of making an impact in the red zone. Utilizing these players will not only give New England more options, but it will help alleviate defensive focus on Edelman and White. The Patriots have the pieces to be a “pick your poison” red zone offense, but they can only do that by using every weapon they have.
Fixing The Red Zone Running Attack
While the passing game appears to have solutions, the running attack doesn’t look as great. The Patriots currently have a 44.6% success rate on red zone rushing attempts, which is 4.4% below the league average. So far, the Patriots have had Sony Michel, James White, Cordarrelle Patterson, James Develin, and Kenjon Barner run in the red zone. However, let’s only look at what Michel and White have done, as they’re the two primary running backs.
Sony Michel has been just about everything the Patriots could have hoped for. When healthy, the rookie running back has been one of the better runners in football. However, his success overall hasn’t necessarily translated to the red zone. So far, Michel has recorded 25 red carries for 50 yards and four touchdowns. His 44.4% success rate is below average and he’s struggled moving the pile when there aren’t clear holes to attack.
Likewise, James White isn’t the most natural red zone runner in the world. Through 11 games, White has 13 red zone carries for just 20 yards and three touchdowns. His 37.5% success rate is over 11 points below the league average. White has never been the most gifted runner in the world, but his lack of rushing ability has been on full display in the red zone.
While White basically is what he is, there is reason to believe Michel can improve his production. From Week Four to Six, the first-round pick was actually one of the more successful red zone backs in the league. Over that three-game stretch, Michel recorded 16 rushing attempts for 43 yards and three touchdowns for a 56.3% success rate.
Granted, he put up these numbers against some pretty bad run defenses. However, Michel has shown the ability to be a great running back at every level of the field when healthy. It only stands to reason that, given enough time, he will improve as a red zone runner as well.
Fortunately for Michel, the Patriots have one of the best run blocking lines in all of football. Per Football Outsiders, the New England Patriots offensive line ranks fourth in the league at run blocking. Running back production, as much as anything, comes from the offensive line, and the Pats have one of the most run-friendly lines in the league. Michel doesn’t need to be great to be a good red zone runner as long as he has this line in front of him.
The Rex Burkhead Factor
Of course, the Patriots are about to get Rex Burkhead back on the field. The running back was activated to the 53-man roster and is likely to make his NFL debut on Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings. While his 5’-10”, 215-pound wouldn’t suggest it, Burkhead was surprisingly effective in the red zone back in 2017.
During his first year with the Patriots, Burkhead recorded 16 carries in the red zone. Burkhead performed admirably with that sample, recording five touchdowns and a 56.3% success rate. The league average in 2017 was 46.7%, so Burkhead was almost 10 points better than average at red zone running.
As mentioned in one of our fantasy football articles, Burkhead probably will be third in the running back pecking order. However, there is a real chance New England uses him as the goal line back. Michel has the skillset to do the job, but Burkhead has the track record. If Michel cannot improve, look for Burkhead to see the lions share of the red zone snaps.
Last Word on the New England Patriots Red Zone Offense
The Patriots red zone offense, while not bad by any means, can certainly be improved. The unit currently ranked 13th in efficiency, and New England has the ability to increase that ranking. In the passing game, the Patriots need to start giving Rob Gronkowski more opportunities. Beyond that, New England needs to start spreading the ball around so teams cannot exclusively lock in on Julian Edelman and James White.
Improving the rushing attack won’t be quite as easy. Sony Michel has the ability to be a difference maker, but his build isn’t favorable for goal line work. However, he had a three-week stretch of red zone dominance early in the season. Now that he’s healthy, hopefully he can find that same form from earlier in the season.
If he can’t, the Patriots can utilize the recently-activated Rex Burkhead. Burkhead was surprisingly effective in the red zone last year and should be able to replicate his success. While Michel offers more upside, Burkhead is capable of doing the job if called upon.
Whichever guy gets the job will be supported by one of the best offensive lines in the league. The unit currently ranks fourth in run blocking and doesn’t have a weak spot along the line. As long as the line can consistently win in the trenches, both running backs should be productive enough to help the offense.
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