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One thing the Patriots offense needs to improve during the second half of 2017

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The answer is pretty obvious this year.

Los Angeles Chargers v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The New England Patriots don’t need to make as many improvements on offense as they need to make on defense, but there is a major focus for Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and company as they head down the second half of the season: red zone scoring.

And while some like our own Evan Lazar point towards “sloppy play and drops” and others like our own Tian Rossi highlights how garbage time play skews the stats and might not need any schematic adjustments, the fact remains that the Patriots need to clean up their errors in the red zone in order to improve their scoring efficiency.

“Red area, we've been getting stopped quite a bit, just kicking field goals,” tight end Rob Gronkowski said when asked what the offense needs to work on in the second half of the year. “We had six field goal attempts last game, so I would say we've got to improve in that area for sure. Finishing the drive and putting points up on the board.”

“We’re not scoring as many points as we’re capable of scoring,” quarterback Tom Brady said after the Chargers game. “I know that. I wish there was a simple answer for it, and the simple word would be execution. I mean, it’s just throwing and catching and blocking and running and doing all those things, staying on track in the red area, but we have more opportunity out there. I mean, we know it. We just haven’t done a great job finishing off the last three or four weeks...”

The Patriots rank third in the NFL with 50.0% of their drives resulting in scoring plays (42 of 84) and they rank fourth with 26.2% of drives ending in a touchdown, so they’re still towards the top of the league in overall scoring efficiency.

But no team in the NFL is better at getting into the red zone than the Patriots in 2017, with 33 of their 84 drives (39.3%) reaching inside the opposing 20. The Los Angeles Rams (28.7%), Dallas Cowboys (36.5%), Atlanta Falcons (35.3%), Green Bay Packers (31.4%), and Pittsburgh Steelers (30.1%) are the other offenses over 30%.

And so the Patriot are putting themselves in position to score more touchdowns than other teams, but they’re not finishing the job. The Patriots score a touchdown on 51.5% of their red zone drives, an ugly 19th-best rate in the NFL.

“It’s not one thing,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said about the struggles on Wednesday. “It never is in our game, unfortunately. If it was one thing, it’d be easy to fix. It’s a lot of people understanding their job and doing their thing on each play the right way to its completion, and hopefully you string together a lot of those plays during the course of a series down there in the red zone.

“We’ve been down in the red zone a ton, and that’s a good thing. We’re going to continue to work hard at that, starting today in practice, and continue to focus on that. We have a strong belief that we can make something that hasn’t been necessarily a strength of ours into a strength in the second half of the season through a lot of hard work, and our guys are committed to it.”

As Tian highlights in his red zone analysis in agreement with McDaniels’ assessment, it’s not just one problem. There are problems on the offensive line and with Tom Brady and with receiver drops and with poor running play designs. Every aspect has to get cleaned up for the Patriots to become a more efficient scoring offense in the second half of the year.

And maybe the problem isn’t necessarily the red zone as a selected range of 20 yards, but instead the issue is with a more focused range of 10 yards from the goal line, when the offense is really in a high leverage situation.

The Patriots lead the league in the number and percent of drives that reach inside the 10-yard line, with 31.0% of their drives getting close to the goal line. 78.8% of the Patriots drives inside the red zone reach inside the 10-yard line, the 4th best efficiency rate in the league, implying that the offense has been capable of moving from the 20-yard line to the 10-yard line.

But the Patriots have only scored a touchdown on 53.8% of their drives inside the 10-yard line, tied for the 5th-worst rate in the NFL. From 2014-16, the Patriots scored a touchdown on 75.8% of their drives inside the 10-yard line, the 5th-best rate in the NFL, showing how far the offensive efficiency has declined in 2017.

The inside-the-10 offense has also dipped over the second quarter of the 2017 season, falling from 9 touchdowns on 14 drives in the first four weeks (64.3%) to just 5 touchdowns on 12 drives over the second four weeks (41.7%).

If the Patriots were scoring inside the 10-yard line with the same efficiency as 2014-16, they would have nearly 6 more touchdowns on the season. So what’s the big issue?

Tom Brady is 11 of 20 (55.0%) on passes inside the 10-yard line, which is not notably different from his 59.8% completion rate inside the 10-yard line from 2014-16. If Brady completed just one more pass, he would be in a similar place as the previous years.

And while Brandin Cooks still hasn’t been targeted inside the 10-yard line other than for a two-point conversion (his lone “target” in the gamebook was actually a throwaway), and he should absolutely be more involved, Brady’s passing to both Chris Hogan and Rob Gronkowski have been positive on the year.

A big problem is in the running game, with special attention to when Mike Gillislee is on the field. I’ve noted that there have been a lot of issues with the offensive line when Gillislee is on the field and part of that is due to the opposing defense knowing that a run is on the way with Gillislee in the backfield. But that can’t explain the whole problem because LeGarrette Blount offered the same lack of versatility on offense and he was much more productive.

When looking at the value added in the run game dating back to 2014, Blount was a league-average running back; he gave roughly the expected value on a given play, nothing more, nothing less. His league-high touchdown numbers in 2016 were more a result of his opportunities by the goal line than any superhuman production.

But even Blount was more productive than Gillislee, whose 12 runs inside the 10-yard line add up to -5 expected points for the offense. In other words, running plays with Gillislee have taken away a big chunk of the Patriots offensive production.

James White has been even worse inside the 10-yard line, although he comes with lower expectations. White has just 5 runs, but he’s provided the same -5 expected points as Gillislee. White hasn’t had a value-added run inside the 10-yard line this year; Gillislee has had just one since week 2. Combined, runs by White and Gillislee have taken 10 points off the board for New England.

Meanwhile, Dion Lewis has had successful carries on 5 of his 7 runs inside the 10, spanning the Panthers, Jets, and Falcons game. Perhaps Lewis should see more time by the goal line until the offensive line sorts out its blocking for Gillislee.

So until the Patriots improve their running inside the 10-yard line, or find a way to get Brandin Cooks involved, the offense will continue to stall and settle for field goals instead of scoring touchdowns. There doesn’t need to be a sweeping change of strategy and there isn’t a single issue.

Everyone needs to execute at a higher level, from Tom Brady to Mike Gillislee to Josh McDaniels, and hopefully the offense will become more efficient at getting into the end zone.