The 2021 New England Patriots are a pretty good football team. Following their 2-4 start, they went on a seven-game winning streak to position themselves as the frontrunners in not just the AFC East but the entire conference. Their defense and special teams are among the best in football, while their rookie-led offense has gotten noticeably better over its first 13 games.
That being said, even one of the best teams in the NFL still has room for improvement. What are thing the Patriots can do better? Glad you asked.
We identified one in each phase of the game. While failing to show marked improvement may not result in disappointing performance down the stretch and into the playoffs, it might leave New England vulnerable to a degree.
Considering that the Patriots’ goal is to play their best football come January (and February as well), putting a special emphasis on them — while not forgetting the fundamentals either — could be quite important moving forward.
Offense: Finishing drives
The Patriots are ranked 10th in the NFL in scoring, with their offense on its own — i.e. without any defensive or special teams scores being counted — currently registering as the 10th most productive unit in the game as well. The ability to consistently put points on the board has been key: New England is ranked first in the league with a scoring rate of 48.2 percent, meaning that almost half of possessions end with either a touchdown or field goal.
That number certainly is impressive, but another one shows that the unit is still leaving points on the board too often. The Patriots offense, after all, is only ranked 26th in the NFL when it comes to converting red zone opportunities into touchdowns.
New England is scoring TDs on only 54.3 percent of trips to the area inside their opponents’ 20-yard line: 46 of those journeys have yielded a mere 25 touchdowns.
The Patriots are still able to come away with points regularly, thanks to a reliable field goal operation led by kicker Nick Folk, but missing opportunities could come back to bite them once games start getting closer. Becoming more efficient in the red area and finishing drives with seven rather than three points has to be a key for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels with the final four weeks of the regular season coming up.
Defense: Covering running backs
First things first: the New England defense is really good, and its ranking as the best scoring unit in the league did not happen by accident. Led by Pro Bowl-caliber players such as Matthew Judon and J.C. Jackson, the group has put the clamps on every opponent it faced during its win streak.
Complacency is not the name of the game for a Bill-Belichick-led team, however, and there is one area the unit can get better at: covering running backs.
The Patriots have one of the best pass defenses in the game, and have performed well against wide receivers and tight ends alike. However, the running back position has been an issue as illustrated by Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric: opposing running backs are generating a DVOA of 22.0 percent — 27th in the NFL — and are also gaining an average of 56.7 receiving yards per contest.
Bringing this number down without compromising the integrity of coverage elsewhere would help make New England’s defense an even stouter one. That is especially true when looking forward to the team’s upcoming opponent: Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor is a serious threat as both a runner and a receiver out of the backfield.
Special teams: Avoiding penalties
New England’s special teams group has bounced back nicely after allowing two punts to be blocked earlier during the season. In fact, the unit might just be among the best in the game yet again and is helping the Patriots win the field position battle on a regular basis (and when not playing in the challenging Buffalo conditions).
So, what is an area it could improve upon heading into the final quarter of the season? There are not many, but avoiding penalties is probably the most prominent.
In total, New England has been flagged 13 times in the kicking game, with 12 of those penalties neither offsetting others nor being declined. That number is the 14th worst in the league, which is not a bad ranking per se but still one that could be improved.
The biggest issue for the Patriots have been holding calls, with the team penalized four different times already for such an infraction. Special teams coordinator Cam Achord has done a fantastic job with his unit the last two years, though; bringing that number down should not be too big of a task for him.