Patriots

Patriots’ red-zone perfection is an encouraging sign

Here are 5 facets of New England's red zone offense that worked against the Jets.

Patriots QB Mac Jones celebrates a touchdown with running back Brandon Bolden. AP

COMMENTARY

The Jets stink.

Let’s agree on that from the start. Let’s also agree that if there’s an incontrovertible reassurance from these first seven weeks it’s that although the Patriots may have slid in the ranks a bit, at least they’ve not receded all the way to the wretched level of the Jets. New England notching a 12th straight victory over New York — and adding 41 points to a ridiculous margin that’s now seen it outscore its supposed rival 378-133 over the life of the streak — at least proves that much.

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But, coming into Week 7, there was one thing the Jets did well.

“Give us an inch of grass and we’ll protect it,” coach Robert Saleh said recently, touting the abilities of his goal-line defense, which entered Sunday as the NFL’s second-best in the red zone. Through six weeks, the Jets had surrendered touchdowns on just 42.9 percent of opponents’ trips inside their 20 yard line; the league average was nearly 62 percent.

Conversely, over those same opening six weeks, only two offensive units in the entire league had been worse in the red zone than the Patriots. That seemed to fuel any fear of the Jets coming to Foxborough and keeping their hosts undefeated at home — but, instead, the Pats flipped the script. They came away with touchdowns on all six of their drives inside the 20, and so while the overall output of 54 points and 551 scrimmage yards could conceivably be dismissed by saying they came against an inferior foe, New England’s red-zone efficacy should not be overlooked or understated, considering the concern it had been over the first half-dozen starts of Mac Jones’s career.

“We’ve been working our tails off, trying to get better; had some frustrating performances,” said Patriots center David Andrews. “It was good to rush for what we did today, protect the quarterback for the most part and punch it in on the goal line a few times. Definitely makes you feel good.”

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Andrews’s team will try to roll that success into Los Angeles this week, and the opportunity to do so may present itself. The Chargers have allowed touchdowns on more than two of every three enemy red-zone chances — 68.9 percent — and rank in the bottom half of the league by that metric. As Sunday suggested, however, performance in those critical spots means more than how it might look on paper, so ultimately the results figure to hinge primarily on the Pats’ execution.

Here are five facets of the red zone offense that worked against the Jets, and may hint at the ingredients for success in the scoring area moving forward:

A GO-TO SHORT YARDAGE RUN

There’s a raft of evidence to suggest the Patriots haven’t been especially confident in short-yardage situations. They eschewed several makeable attempts to pick up fourth downs over the first six weeks, and nearer to the goal line they’ve a couple times used Damian Harris out of a wildcat look rather than trying to line up and ram it in.

Sunday, though, they found great success out of a familiar set to score three times from the 1. On each, they started with a lone tailback behind Jones, then motioned fullback Jacob Johnson from right to left, where he settled as a flank to the quarterback. Just beyond Jones was a receiver, lined up tight in the left slot.

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On each of the three 1-yard touchdown runs — the first by Harris, the latter two by J.J. Taylor — Johnson helped seal the outer edge while the back took the hand off and barreled over the interior of the left side of the line, where Andrews was aligned with guard Ted Karras. The receiver’s role on that side can’t be discounted either, with credit going to N’Keal Harry on the first two, then Gunner Olszewski on the haul that hurdled the Pats over the 50-point plateau.

“We put a lot of time into goal line, short yardage and sometimes we don’t get those opportunities. As an offensive lineman and running backs you got to love punching it in,” Andrews said. “As an offensive line that’s what we want.”

Even on Harris’s other run, the elements were similar. On that one, Johnson still motioned, but that time he positioned himself behind the quarterback. That snap came from the 3, as opposed to the 1, so on that he served as a lead blocker. Again, Harry held his block from the slot. And again Harris rammed it in over the left side.

It may have been something Josh McDaniels identified as a weakness of the Jets, who were missing stalwart linebacker C.J. Moseley, and might’ve been a gameplan-specific formation. It wasn’t exotic — but the Pats’ ability to execute it, and execute it repeatedly, should at least breed a degree of confidence that it can be a reliable strength when they find themselves in similar circumstances later.

BIG PLAYS TO GET IN POSITION

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Over their first five games, the Patriots scored only two touchdowns from inside the opponents’ 5. (Further, they’d only kicked a field goal from there once, and that was the Week 5 game-winner against Houston.) In the two weeks since, they’ve scored seven times from within the five, including five against the Jets and a couple of others against the Cowboys a week earlier.

Combined with the fact half of Nick Folk’s 16 field goals have been from 35 yards or less, that suggests too many of the Pats’ red-zone possessions have petered out closer to the 20 than to the goal line.

In Sunday’s win, the Pats connected for pass completions of 46 and 28 yards that brought them all the way down to the Jets’ 1. Another 22-yard throw took the ball to the 3, and a Harris run of 32 yards set up first and goal from the 7. Of the Pats’ 10 longest gains of the day, four set them up in goal-to-go situations, while another put the ball directly in the end zone.

Effectively, the Pats spent much of the afternoon just skipping over the area of the field where so many of their drives had gone to die. Call it a byproduct of finally connecting on some big plays — even while the scoresheet might show five TDs from three yards or less.

EFFICIENCY

Another impressive fact about the Patriots’ red-zone performance Sunday — and another testament to the big chunks that got them into position — was that the offense only ran 13 official plays from within the Jets’ 20. (A 14th didn’t count because Jakobi Meyers was a victim of pass interference.)

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That’s impressive efficiency, with more than 46 percent of snaps going for scores. And it’s not as though they struggled situationally on the other downs. Just twice did they face third down in the red zone, one being canceled by the interference drawn by Meyers, and the other resulting in the 15-yard swing pass Brandon Bolden took in for a touchdown.

McDaniels has shown a propensity for calling trick plays this season, or trying to stew confusion among the defense — but this week he didn’t need to go very deep into his bag to find paydirt.

SHOTGUN PASSING

With the game still in the balance before the half, Bill Belichick showed some faith in his rookie quarterback by trying to capitalize on the final 1:15 of the second quarter, rather than contently going to the break with a 24-7 lead. Jones looked like a leader in command of his attack throughout the series, spending much of it in shotgun — and staying there even after the series moved into the red area.

Starting from the 17, with a pass to Bolden, Jones took all five snaps from the shotgun to finish off the drive. They threw it and ran it effectively from there, even using that set when they were first and goal from the one with 31 seconds and a timeout still to go. They could’ve brought in Justin Herron as an extra tackle and tried to stuff it like they’d already done with Harris, and would do a couple more times in the second half. Instead, they left Jones behind, used Harris to chip in a block, and the QB popped a pass over the line to a diving Hunter Henry.

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HUNTER HENRY

While Jonnu Smith’s greatest contributions have come when the Patriots have been able to get him the ball in space, Henry has spent October providing the red-zone threat the Pats have lacked from their tight ends since Rob Gronkowski retired — and was effectively promised when the team spent so big on the position in free agency.

Henry’s diving, juggling catch in the back of the end zone Sunday gave him a touchdown in four consecutive contests, with each of the quartet originating from within the opponents’ 20. He also made one of the big catches that set up a rushing score, having established a trust with his quarterback that has carried over to his coaches, too. On Monday, Bill Belichick effusively praised Henry’s intellect, his ability to manipulate the defense, and his awareness on the field.

“He does a lot of little things, subtle things, really, really well. As I said, he’s been a really good addition to our team and gives us a lot of versatility,” said the coach. “He’s a guy that has really stepped up and has given us a lot of production at that position.”

Since the first of Henry’s four touchdown catches, the Pats have scored 12 touchdowns on 16 red-zone trips (and that includes the drive at Houston where Harris fumbled at the goal line). Before then, they’d been two for eight. The timing of Henry’s production in that part of the field, and the offense’s increased proficiency, aren’t a coincidence.

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