Patriots bye-week fixes: N'Keal Harry the answer to their red-zone issue?

Phil Perry

FOXBORO -- The Patriots are knee-deep in information at this point in the year. 

Nine games. Nine games of film. Nine games of third-down attempts, red-zone trips and two-minute drills. Nine games of blitz-pickups, short-yardage runs, and punts off the foot of a rookie.

For at least seven more regular-season games, the Patriots will have to determine what it is they do best and what their opponents are trying to do to them based on their weaknesses. They can't guarantee that they'll improve those problem areas, but analyzing all the information they have at their disposal can certainly bring them some perspective.

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Of course, Bill Belichick and his team won't just offer up every little thing they focused on this week before players dispersed for a few days off. But that won't keep us from taking a stab at which areas the Patriots tried to address before attacking the second portion of their schedule.

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OFFENSIVELY: RED-ZONE PASSING

Tom Brady was pretty open about one of his team's biggest issues through the first half of their season after the Patriots went 2-for-4 in the red zone in Baltimore.

"Those are important plays," he said. "It really hasn't been a strength for us all year. We're going to have to figure it out."

He wasn't wrong. The Patriots are 21st in the league in red-zone success, punching it into the end zone on exactly half of their red-zone trips this season. That rate ties them with the vaunted offense a few hundred miles south led by Sam Darnold and Adam Gase.

But why have they struggled as they have in the red zone? Let's dig a little deeper than the touchdown percentage. 

When you look specifically at New England's red-zone passing, there are issues there. And it's not simply what happens to them when they throw the football inside the 20. It's what happens to them when they throw the football close to the goal line.

The Patriots are 27th in the league in passing success rate when they're at the 10-yard line or closer. According to Sharp Football Stats, they've had success -- defined as 40 percent of the yards needed for a first down on first down, 50 percent of the yards needed for a first down on second down, 100 percent of the yards needed for a first down on third and fourth down, or a touchdown -- on 10 of 30 attempts.

The closer the Patriots get to the goal line, the worse their passing offense gets. When they're at the eight-yard line or closer, they've been successful only six times out of 21 attempts (30th in the NFL). When they're at the five-yard line or closer, they're been successful twice in 13 attempts (31st in the NFL). 

Because running the football is much more efficient than throwing close to the goal line across the league -- that's one of the situations in which it's still vital to be able to run effectively -- New England's ability to pass when close to the end zone should be a season-killer. The Patriots have been smart when they get inside the five-yard line, running 100 percent more often than they pass (26 rush attempts versus 13 pass attempts), and having success when they do. They're fifth in the league in success rate running inside the five (73 percent). They'll take that.

But over the last three games, something interesting has happened. The Patriots haven't run as much from the five-yard line and in. They have 11 rush attempts from there. They have seven pass attempts from there. That's much closer to a 50-50 split than they'd shown previously. They haven't necessarily gotten worse running the football from in close in that span (ninth in success rate) so why the change? 

Teams may be defending them differently there, loading up against the run and encouraging the Patriots to try to throw from an area of the field in which they're far below average throwing the football. Or Josh McDaniels and Belichick have simply opted to try fewer short-yardage, gotta-have-it runs (more on that below). 

How do the Patriots get more efficient inside the red zone? Getting more efficient from the 10-yard line and in would go a long way. And since they've been pretty effective running the football from that distance, they need to improve their passing game in there.

How do they go about doing that? Big bodies should help. Mohamed Sanu (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) caught his first red-zone touchdown with the Patriots last weekend and should continue to be heavily involved there. Tight end Matt LaCosse (6-6, 255) could make a dent in New England's red-zone production when he gets healthy enough to be back on the field. 

The Patriots also have someone we haven't yet seen this season who looks like a ready-made red-zone weapon waiting in the wings. 

N'Keal Harry is listed at 6-4, 225 pounds, and when he was drafted he was considered to be among the best contested-catch artists in the 2019 rookie class. Harry was eligible to play in his first professional game in Baltimore but was made a healthy scratch. Perhaps the game plan that night -- heavy on the hurry-up in a hostile environment -- wasn't the best for his debut. But if the Patriots want to be more effective throwing the football in the red zone, and particularly down by the goal line, he could help remedy the issue. 

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OFFENSIVELY: SHORT-YARDAGE ON THIRD (AND FOURTH) DOWN

When the Patriots decided to kick a field goal from the one-yard line at the end of the first half in Baltimore, they went against what some analysts would suggest was the wisest move. 

Scoring from the one would've given the Patriots four more points and all kinds of momentum going into the locker room. And -- as we established above -- they've been good running the football in goal-line situations. They're a top-10 team in success rate when running from the one or two-yard line.

But the Patriots had momentum on their side at that point in the game, they were getting the football back to start the second half, and there's reason to believe they simply aren't very good in short-yardage situations this year. 

For the entirety of the season, according to Sharp Football Stats, the Patriots are 19th in the NFL in success rate (58 percent) on third or fourth down when they need three yards or fewer to get a first down. There are 21 teams in the NFL more likely to run for a first down in those situations. There are 20 teams more likely to throw for a first down in those spots. Over the course of the last month, they've actually been slightly worse in those short-yardage scenarios, ranking 21st in success rate with three yards or fewer to go. 

How do they fix it? 

Getting Isaiah Wynn back should immediately improve the offensive line and give the Patriots one more capable body to run behind. According to Pro Football Focus, Marshall Newhouse -- Wynn's replacement -- has graded out as the 49th run-blocking tackle in the league among players who have at least 50 percent playing time.

Trying a back other than Sony Michel might be worth a shot. (It's worth noting the Patriots have. Brandon Bolden, Michel fantasy owners will remember, was their goal-line back in Week 6.) Among the 11 NFL running backs with at least nine carries on third (or fourth) down and three yards or fewer to go, Michel is 6th in success rate (64 percent) and ninth in yards per carry (1.0). If you broaden that scope to players with at least three such attempts, Michel is 30th in average yards and 26th in success rate.

Getting a healthy tight end or two back (or using an offensive lineman as an extra tight end) might also help the Patriots in their quest to be more efficient in short-yardage situations. They're only 50 percent successful when running on third or fourth-and-short out of 11 personnel, a whopping 20 percent below the league average from that personnel grouping. They lose yards (-0.1) on average from "11" in those situations. Not good. 

The reason a healthy tight end might help? They're 67 percent successful on short-yardage runs from two tight-end sets (12 and 22 personnel). They only have nine attempts from those groupings, though, in part because they haven't been healthy at that position. 

However they do it, the Patriots have to feel as though improving in this area is one of their top priorities. With their place-kicking situation in the state it's in now that Stephen Gostkowski is out for the year, converting in short-yardage to continue drives and prevent long field-goal attempts looks like it could be critical for them moving forward. 

One other running-game note: The Patriots could afford to get better running the football late in games. They've had so many leads late in games where they're simply trying to salt away the clock that opponents have been able to load up against the run and slow them down. But New England is 29th in rush efficiency in the fourth quarter, while other winning teams -- Baltimore, Buffalo, Indianapolis and Dallas are all in the top-10 -- manage to do better. Running late in games to drain clock, like running at the goal line, is still vitally important even in today's pass-happy NFL.

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OFFENSIVELY: KEEPING BRADY CLEAN

This is going to be a priority for the Patriots just about any time they take the field. It has been for going on two decades now. 

But Brady's success this season has been tied to him having a clean pocket more so than any other season in the last decade. According to Pro Football Focus, Brady has a 47.9 quarterback rating under pressure this season. That's the fourth-worst rating in the league among quarterbacks who've taken at least half of their team's snaps. It's also Brady's worst rating under pressure, per PFF data that goes back to 2006.

Just to put that in some perspective, Brady was 15th in the league when it came to his rating under pressure last season (71.2). He was first in the league in 2017 (96.6), fifth in 2016 (84.9) and first in 2015 (97.1). Performance under pressure is fairly volatile, it should be noted. Brady was extremely ineffective under pressure in 2014 (53.4 rating, 22nd) yet still was good enough to win a Super Bowl.

But this season represents Brady's starkest contrast over the last decade between his true accuracy percentage (which doesn't include throwaways, spikes, drops or batted passes) under pressure and when in a clean pocket. According to PFF, Brady is accurate 55.7 percent of the time under pressure (his worst percentage of the last decade) and 81.9 percent of the time (second-best) when kept clean. 

One could make the argument that Brady's rating numbers under pressure aren't worth putting much stock into. He leads the league in throwaways under pressure, which would actually hurt his quarterback rating more than taking sacks would. Even though a throwaway is a smart play if the result is going to be a sack, his rating suffers as a result of those positive plays.

But PFF's accuracy percentage -- since it doesn't take into account throwaways or other passes that were disrupted for some reason out of Brady's control -- gives us a truer sense of whether or not Brady's passes go where he wants them to when he's pressured. A 26.2 percent difference between a clean pocket and under pressure is significant. 

Improving New England's odds of keeping Brady clean is easier said than done. Once again, replacing Newhouse with Wynn should help. Only eight offensive tackles in the league have allowed more pressures than Newhouse has (24), and he's 41st among tackles in PFF's pass-blocking grade. 

Shaq Mason has had occasional issues in pass protection, checking in with 20 pressures allowed (eighth-most among interior linemen), but both Joe Thuney (nine pressures, 72nd) and Ted Karras (10, 61st) have been effective in that phase. Thuney has been particularly impressive -- he's the No. 8 pass-protecting interior lineman, per PFF -- and is setting himself up well as he's scheduled to head into free agency after the season.

But part of this falls on Brady as well. He's actually been kept clean relatively frequently this season, seeing pressure on just 29.7 percent of his dropbacks. That's the fifth-lowest percentage in the league. 

While getting Wynn back -- and perhaps increasing their dreadful 3.3 yards per carry average, forcing defensive linemen to respect that aspect of the Patriots offense -- should help keep Brady upright more regularly and working from cleaner pockets more often, the Patriots have actually protected him fairly well overall. A top-five pressure percentage is one aspect of the Patriots offensive-line play Dante Scarnecchia can be proud of.

But because Brady is so vastly superior when working out of a clean pocket, anything the Patriots can do to keep him even cleaner than they already are should be pursued. Wynn's return will be massive. 

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DEFENSIVELY: DEFENDING SUB RUNS

The Patriots defense has been historically good through their first nine games, even after their dud in Baltimore. 

There's not nearly as much to pick apart statistically on this side of the ball, but how the Patriots have defended the run is worth a closer look. 

Against "sub" looks -- meaning against what would traditionally be considered passing formations -- the Patriots have had their issues. They allow 4.6 yards per carry to teams when facing one-back, one-tight end and three-receiver sets (11 personnel). That's about the league average, but this Patriots defense hasn't been average in just about any category so it's worth noting. 

The Patriots also allow a whopping 11.3 yards per carry out of one-back, four-receiver sets (10 personnel). They haven't faced many "10" runs, but remember Steven Sims' 65-yard touchdown run in Washington back in Week 5?

Or how about Nick Chubb's 44-yard run (and fumble) in Week 8?

Both came when the Patriots had their dime personnel (six defensive backs) on the field because they faced a four-receiver look.

The Patriots have also had their issues against heavier formations. When up against three-tight end looks versus the Bills and Jets, they gave up long runs to Frank Gore (41 yards) and Le'Veon Bell (19 yards) respectively. 

The common thread on each of those long runs listed above? Missed tackles. 

The Patriots are actually one of the five best tackling teams in the league, according to PFF, but they missed four tackles during Gore's long jaunt, two by defensive backs. They missed three, all be defensive backs, on Sims' long run. They missed six on Chubb's run, four by defensive backs.

Locking down their tackling fundamentals, something Belichick harps year-round, could help them avoid allowing any further explosive runs and bring down their 4.7 yards allowed per carry number, which is the ninth-highest mark in football. 

The Patriots went a stretch of three games to start the season where they didn't allow a rush of 10 yards or more and will look to get out to a similar start after their bye. 

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DEFENSIVELY: STOPPING TIGHT ENDS

The Patriots defense hasn't seen many targets head to tight ends over the course of the first nine games of the season. Only 13 percent of pass attempts against the Patriots go to players at that position (37 attempts), which is the second-lowest percentage in the league. 

That's a sign that the Patriots have done fairly well in locking up opposing tight ends. Perhaps quarterbacks don't even want to target them because they're being tightly-covered. 

But when passers to unleash in the direction of their tight ends against the Patriots, they average 7.8 yards per attempt. That number puts the Patriots 17th in the league in defending that position when it comes to that category. 

Pittsburgh's Vance McDonald had 40 yards on two catches (four targets) back in Week 1. Buffalo's Dawson Knox had 58 yards on three catches (four targets) back in Week 4. Giants tight end Rhett Ellison had 30 yards on three catches (six targets) back in Week 6. Cleveland's Demetrius Harris had 33 yards and a touchdown on two catches (three targets) back in Week 8. Baltimore got 10 catches for 71 yards on 11 targets from its tight ends. 

That's not exactly a murderer's row of players at that position, and yet those players have had production going against Patriots linebackers and safeties. 

As this defense attempts to get back on track following the bye, they'll have much tougher pass-catchers to slow down at the tight end spot. In Philly, it'll be Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert. Three weeks later, they'll see Travis Kelce when the Chiefs visit Gillette Stadium.Perhaps the bye will give the Patriots time to develop a plan for that position before they see a true game-breaker there. 

It's just one of the many items they could've tried to check off this week.

CURRAN: Did Patriots hold back vs. Ravens?>>>

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Patriots bye-week fixes: N'Keal Harry the answer to their red-zone issue? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

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