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    HomeSportPatriots Mailbag: What's up with the red-zone struggles?

    Patriots Mailbag: What’s up with the red-zone struggles?

    Before the New England Patriots head to Cleveland for a Week 6 showdown with the Browns, we’ve got some mailbag questions to answer.

    Let’s get right into it…

    The Patriots offense is a little bit of an enigma at the moment, Mark. They’re eighth in success rate and 15th in expected points added. Not bad, right? They were also leading the league in deep passing yards through three weeks with Mac Jones at quarterback. They’ve been fairly efficient in the middle of the field.

    When looking at their red-zone issues — they’re 28th in the NFL with touchdowns on 40 percent of their red-zone trips — you could say that this offense looked built to strike deep down the field, forcing it to get bogged down when space condensed inside the 20.

    But their rushing offense is among the best in football. They’re second in rush EPA and sixth in rushing success rate through five weeks. That should still work in the red zone, shouldn’t it? And even through the air, the Patriots have the big-bodied targets — like DeVante Parker, Jakobi Meyers and Hunter Henry — that shouldn’t need all that much space to be impactful.

    Plus, the Patriots have faced the weakest slate of defenses in the NFL through five weeks, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA. In terms of scoring, they’ve seen the No. 32 (Detroit), No. 29 (Miami), No. 26 (Pittsburgh) defenses in the league.

    What gives?

    “I feel like we’ve kind of been hurting ourselves a lot,” Meyers told me Wednesday. “There’s a penalty here or a missed assignment there. We just have to get out of our own way…

     

    “We get down there and we just aren’t the same team we were when we started the drive off. We just have to be able to finish long drives and stay locked in the whole time.”

    It’s not a conditioning issue, Meyers said. “That’s all we do,” he said with a smile. It’s their focus.

    “Our focus probably drops off,” he said. “Everybody’s excited on the first play, but can you still be excited on the ninth play or the tenth play? We just gotta make sure we focus all the way through. We’re just missing little details down there. When we watch the film, it’s like, ‘Man, if we just did this. If we just listened to the count.’ We just have to be really extra locked in when we get down there.”

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    Meyers acknowledged that even if their focus is where it should be, space gets tight down inside the red zone, particularly in the passing game, making life difficult. And especially with a third-string quarterback in these last two weeks, it makes sense that the play-calling would err on the side of being risk-averse.

    They got conservative on a couple of possessions against Detroit, keeping the ball on the ground and letting kicker Nick Folk finish things off. And even when Bailey Zappe did attack through the air against Detroit, none of his attempts traveled into the end zone. He wasn’t exactly pushing the envelope from an aggressiveness standpoint.

    “It’s a lot tighter,” Meyers said. “Guys can’t just run 50 yards down the field and stretch the safeties out, let somebody else run underneath. In the red area, the safeties aren’t dropping past the goal line. You’ve got 20, 25 yards to work with. All the windows are tighter. (Defensive) guys are a little nervous because their backs are against the wall, and people usually play better when their backs are against a wall. It’s just tougher. Knowing how tough it is, I feel like we need to be more in the moment than we have been.”

    The Patriots have also had issues offensively in gotta-have-it scenarios, regardless of where they’re at on the field. They’re 21st in third-down offense at the moment, and they’ve shown at times — especially early in the season — that they had issues in terms of sorting out their protections against exotic pressure packages from opposing defenses. When defenses scheme things, whether it’s on third down or in the red zone, the Patriots have had problems taking advantage.

     

    It’s not the plays, though, Meyers said. It’s the execution. What the Patriots call “MAs” — short for missed assignment — abound in the red area.

    “I feel like we have a good game plan once we get down there,” he explained. “If I could just pick out three random drives in my head right now, on all three, there was a penalty or a MA. Then we tried to bounce back with third and long. That’s hard already, but especially in the red zone. If we cut out those bad plays — that’s bad football that we’ve been playing — then I think it’s a different story.

    “It’s just, can we get out of our own way? Can guys stay locked in throughout the entire drive?

    Perhaps once Mac Jones returns… once a red-zone threat like Hunter Henry gets more involved… once the offensive line shows it can consistently protect against dialed-up pressures… once the focus gets locked in… then the red-zone numbers will tick upward.

    Until then, the Patriots have some work to do.

    He looked improved out on the practice field Wednesday. He worked on moving up in the pocket and throwing. He executed a roll-out throw at one point. While it did look like he limped between reps at times, he could certainly do more than the last time we saw him on the field.

    This week may be one of those weeks where Bill Belichick has to make a call between playing a player who’s cleared but less than 100 percent, versus playing another player who’s not and is 100 percent.

    The answer there will in all likelihood come from within, Mike. Pierre Strong is the other back on the roster along with Rhamondre Stevenson. On the practice squad, they have J.J. Taylor and Kevin Harris. Will be interesting to see how the Patriots handle it.

    Damien Harris was out at practice on Wednesday, but he quickly left for some conditioning work, apparently, on the lower field. Would seem to make sense to give him some time. Strong’s strength is his speed. If the Patriots want more of a physical runner — who could take some of those four-minute offense reps you mention — then Kevin Harris would be the battering-ram option. Taylor, meanwhile, would give the Patriots a little more experience and some early-down ability.

    When we touched on this on Monday’s Early Edition with Trenni, the name that first came to mind was that of Christian McCaffrey. Is that likely to happen? My guess is no. In part because McCaffrey is the only thing the Panthers seem to have going for them at the moment. They’ll want to sell tickets. He’s a star. Prying him away from Carolina could be costly in terms of trade compensation.

     

    But here’s why it could work: He’s relatively inexpensive for this season, and he has zero guaranteed dollars attached to him for 2023 and beyond. McCaffrey has a base salary of just over $1 million this year so if he’s traded near the deadline, about half of that will become the responsibility of his new club. No problem. Even the cap-strapped Patriots — they have just over $2 million in cap space, per our pal Miguel Benzan — could handle that.

    Money aside, McCaffrey is a next-level talent at a position where the Patriots have a need. Relying on Stevenson to carry them for a stretch is possible — Bill Belichick loves him and knows he could be an every-down runner — but overworking him might be courting disaster. By bringing on McCaffrey, you could get the best of both backs. Limiting their touches would help preserve both, particularly McCaffrey, who has missed 34 games the last three seasons.

    Should Patriots target any of these potential Panthers trade candidates?

    Panthers pass-rusher Brian Burns would also be worthy of a look via trade. He would give the Patriots some much-needed juice off the line of scrimmage opposite Matt Judon. Again, preserving a star player already on the Patriots roster could be part of the calculus here. Judon ran out of steam late last season, if Burns can help give Judon the occasional breather, he’d only add to what is already significant value as a bendy off-the-edge disrupter. He’s only making just over $2 million in base salary for this year so he’s another player the Patriots could fit under the cap at the moment. He’s guaranteed $16 million in 2023, though, so Belichick would have to factor that into his decision-making process, if there’s a decision to be made.

    One other under-the-radar name to keep in mind: offensive lineman Brady Christensen. The BYU product entered the league as an elite athlete and could potentially provide snaps at both guard and tackle — the latter of which is where he spent his collegiate career. He has two years left on his deal after this one, so the Panthers may not be willing to part with him. But if the Patriots are willing to spend to add some offensive line depth, they could use it. They have real questions behind their starters at guard, and they’re an injury away from needing another body at tackle.

    What I was told prior to the draft by one AFC quarterbacks coach was that Zappe’s arm was essentially borderline NFL-caliber in terms of the velocity he can generate. While Jones isn’t thought to have a howitzer, his arm is considered better. The comp I was given for Zappe was Nick Mullens. Smart. Accurate. Not great size. Not a massive arm. But someone who could be an NFL backup — which has immense value — for a long time.

     

    I think it was telling that on Wednesday, Belichick said the decision on whether or not to play Jones is “totally independent” from Zappe’s play. When Jones is healthy, the indication was, he’ll be back. Regardless of how Zappe has been doing.

    I’m sticking with nine for now. The schedule in terms of wins and losses has played out exactly as I projected through five weeks. Didn’t exactly take a crystal ball to end up here, but no reason for a change, in my opinion. Not yet, at least.

    Great question. I think Jones’ off-the-field track record is part of the reason he became a fourth-round pick. Plenty of evaluators saw him as a real physical (and instinctual) talent. But he bounced between three different schools. He was arrested. He was suspended for fighting. There was enough there behind the scenes that even the teams who saw him as a real cover-corner prospect decided to pass. But he’s been nothing but a good citizen to this point in his young NFL career, and there’s not a rookie corner in the league who’s had the start that he’s had.

    On talent alone, if you were to re-draft, he’d probably go in the first round. But we know evaluating talent alone isn’t how the draft works.

    I think it’s possible, Neil. When I spoke to Trent Brown after the Lions game, he said he believed they were finding their identity as a potent rushing attack, and he looked forward to them “(sticking) to our guns.” That could mean more heavy packages. But Jones has an ability to run a more advanced passing attack. Getting more receivers out into routes has its advantages, and the Patriots should leverage those.

    Truck, I know they were fired up to get him back. Though Nelson Agholor was participating at Wednesday’s practice, it wouldn’t surprise me if Thornton cuts into the receiver workload in such a way that Agholor’s role is reduced.

    Ball security has been an issue for Agholor all season. He fumbled in Week 1 and Week 3. He had a drop over the middle in Green Bay, and his drop over the middle against the Lions led to a pick. In a program where the belief has been “you’re either coaching it or allowing it to happen,” giving Agholor a break in favor of another wideout would make sense.

    The Lions and Browns are the Spiderman meme of Patriots opponents. Both headed into their matchup with New England running the hell out of the ball; the Browns are averaging almost 200 yards per game on the ground behind Nick Chubb. But both have been abhorrent at stopping the run. The Lions came to Gillette Stadium as the worst rushing defense in terms of DVOA. That honor now belongs to the Browns, who are allowing 5.3 yards per carry. Xerox the game plan and run it back? Might be worthwhile.

     

    Have to release him to get him on the practice squad, if that’s their intention. Humphrey was a hybrid receiver-slash-tight end. But I think the reality was that he wasn’t viewed as a roster-caliber player at either spot. The depth at wideout — especially with excellent blocking receiver Jakobi Meyers returning to the field — helped force a move here.

    Haven’t in a long time. But! Ocarina of Time, NFL Blitz, MVP 2005 and the original Halo (CTF was the best thing going at the time, in my opinion) are Hall of Famers for me. That’s only four but I’m not sure any others stack up with those.

    Jim Harbaugh? Pete Carroll? Do those guys count? They had massive NFL experience prior to going back to the college game and then returning.

    Let’s do it! Ready for the Cleveland edition? 

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