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Film Review: Breaking down the Patriots’ offensive issues in the red zone

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What’s wrong with the Patriots’ red zone offense?

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at New England Patriots Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

If you haven’t heard already the Patriots offense has been in a bit of a rut when it comes to converting red zone drives into touchdowns.

The Pats lead the NFL in yards per game at 411.1, which is 20-plus yards more per contest than any other team, but regarding red zone efficiency, they’re a 50/50 proposition.

Currently, the Patriots score a touchdown on 50% of their red zone opportunities, which ranks tied for 17th in the NFL through the first eight weeks.

The problem has been exacerbated over the last two weeks, as their percentage dropped to 33.3% against the Falcons and Chargers.

The red zone woes have seen the Patriots’ point totals drop from over 32 PPG over the last four weeks to 21.8 PPG in October.

Furthermore, the Patriots’ struggles to finish drives with touchdowns can be defined statistically even further when you look at the third down conversion rate inside the opponents 20-yard line. This season, the Patriots are 6-23 on third down in the red zone, and their 26.1% conversion rate ranks 26th in the NFL.

Third downs in the red zone can almost be considered as four-point plays, as a conversion typically leads to a touchdown, and a failed attempt means a field goal. When you look at the top scoring offenses in the NFL, they’re almost always teams that are successful on third down red zone plays.

The Patriots offense reached the Chargers’ 25-yard line seven times on 10 drives in Week 8, but managed just 21 points after going 1-4 in the red zone.

So what do all the stats mean? And what’s to blame for the struggles?

Well, although many will point to one person or thing, like most things in football, the cause of the problem for the Patriots has to do with a multitude of issues.

In short, on Sunday, the red zone struggles were a combination of good defense by the Chargers, timing issues, a few costly drops by Patriots receivers, and yes, some subpar play by the greatest quarterback of all-time.

It’s difficult to throw Brady under the bus, especially in these parts, but after I walk you through the tape, I think you will all come to realize it’s just the hard truth of it. That’s not to say Brady played poorly overall or is declining, but his handling of pressures in the red zone cost the Patriots in a few critical situations.

Let's go through the tape and try to make sense of all of this.

Brady’s Struggles

As you might expect, Tom Brady’s field vision is typically one of his biggest strengths, but he struggled seeing the field at times inside the Chargers’ 20-yard line.

The Chargers’ pass rush had a lot to do with it, but Brady also missed a few throws that he would typically make.

Let’s start with the Patriots’ first failed red zone drive of the game, which came in the second quarter.

The Pats failed to score a touchdown despite getting as far the Chargers’ 6-yard line, and this third down throwaway was a key part of that failure.

As you can see above, the Patriots have a rub route designed between Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan in the slot (bottom of screen).

They get what they want, as Amendola works of Hogan to create a window underneath going across the middle.

Now to fully understand what happens on this play, you have to watch Brady’s movement in the pocket.

He gets happy feet in the pocket due to a strong inside rush from Chargers DE Joey Bosa, but Bosa actually falls down do in part to a collision with his own man.

In other words, Brady isn’t under an immense amount of pressure here, and even if he was, if the ball comes out to Amendola on time it’s most likely a touchdown or at the very least, it’s a first down on 3rd and 2.

That’s an easy throw for Brady, and a staple in the Pats’ red zone offense, that we typically see him make on a week-to-week basis.

Here’s another example of the Chargers’ pass rush effecting Brady’s decision making and timing. The Chargers dominate the Patriots’ offensive line on this play, as both tackles and left guard Joe Thuney get beat.

However, instead of doing what he typically does, which is slide up in the pocket to buy time, Brady ends up throwing this ball over the middle into coverage, as the pressure speeds up his process and forces him into a bad decision.

Now take a look at the over-head angle and you can see that at the top of the screen Brady has some options.

Both running back James White and tight end Rob Gronkowski had a chance to make the line to gain if they got the ball, but the pressure Brady never gets to that side of the field because the pressure forces him into a bad throw.

Finally, here’s another odd play by Brady, who ends up taking a big sack on first down.

First, the immediate pressure off the edge forces him off his spot, which isn’t on him, but he has the running back open on the curl route in the flat right in his line of view.

Who know’s why Brady doesn’t throw it here? You’d have to ask him.

But after he scrambles out of trouble he should have either seen the running back open or thrown the ball away. Taking a sack on first down like that put the Patriots in a tough position to get points on that drive.

Now the Chargers pass rush, which is one of the best in the NFL, deserves a lot of credit for pressuring Brady on nearly 50% of his drop-backs, and that pressure was even more effective in the red zone.

However, what separates good quarterbacks from great ones is how they handle pressure. Does it force them to throw interceptable passes? Or mess with how they go through their progressions? Or can they deliver strikes despite the pressure?

So far this season, Brady has been terrific under pressure, but he struggled at times against the Chargers, especially in the final third of the field.

Drops

Tom Brady has been effected by drops from his receivers more often this season than any other quarterback.

Patriots receivers have combined for 20 drops this season, which meaning Brady has had more dropped passes by receivers than any quarterback in the NFL this season, according to Pro Football Focus.

The drops plagued the Pats in a few key situations in the scoring area of the field on Sunday, and they came from their two best receivers, Brandin Cooks and Rob Gronkowski, on back-to-back plays.

On first down, the Patriots went with a quick throw to Cooks that’s designed to be an easy completion that makes second and third down more manageable.

It’s not a perfect throw by Brady, but is designed to be a low throw, and one that Cooks should have had.

A completion like this is the difference between 2nd and 10 and 2nd and 3.

On the very next play, the Patriots run a fake screen to the outside that’s designed for Brady to come back to Gronkowski in single coverage. They get what they want and the ball is on the money, but the big guy just drops it.

Drops are a negative part of the game for an offense just like turnovers or sacks, but to have two blatant drops on consecutive plays like shows the type of day it was for the Patriots in the red zone.

Timing/Execution

Lastly, there were a few instances down by the goal line were the timing and execution by the Patriots’ offense was off just enough to lead to stalled drives.

Here, both Gronk and Danny Amendola appear to have a chance at this pass, and Amendola ultimately got credited for the target, but you see once again how the pressure played a role, and how this play was that close to being a completion.

Plays like these that are just one step off for both receivers shows perfectly how an offense can go from a juggernaut in the middle of the field to a sloth in the red area.

Conclusion

The good news for Patriots fans is that the issues in the red zone have nothing to do with scheme or play calling.

Could the Patriots throw in a few more wrinkles to make things easier? Sure.

And could offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have a bit more consistency with his approach and play calling? Absolutely.

But on the whole, there are open receivers, and plays to be made, which is an excellent sign. The Patriots played a stingy Chargers defense on Sunday that has a great formula to slow down Tom Brady. Los Angeles gets a terrific pass rush from its front four and has enough talent in the secondary to hold things together.

However, the Patriots also shot themselves in the foot a handful of times with some sloppy play and drops.

You also don’t see Tom Brady react to pressure as poorly as he did on Sunday too often. That, more than anything, is something that will improve almost immediately in the coming weeks.

To be a good red zone offense the most important thing is to operate with a high level of execution. In the red zone, timing is even more critical than it is in the open field because things tend to move faster and there’s less margin for error. You have smaller passing lanes and less space to create openings. Thus you have to be even more precise than usual.

With a little bit more attention to detail and some better play from key contributors, the Patriots offense will be scoring in the 30s once again.