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Ask PFW: Red zone, pass rush and more


It seems to me that one of the biggest struggles this season for the Patriots has been red zone offense. Usually in the past once Tom Brady and company have managed to get past the 20 you might as well put 6 on the board. This season, even in games where they've had no trouble moving the ball down the field, they seem to be getting stuck on the half yard line way too much. What do you think is going on? Are we just missing a bruiser like LeGarrette Blount to finish the job, or is the problem on the O-line?_ Fred Zanka_

The Patriots have definitely had some struggles in the red zone this season. There are currently in the middle of the pack in the league (13th) in touchdown percentage, converting about 63 percent of their red zone trips into TDs. That is lower than what we've been accustomed to with Brady over the past several years. There are probably lots of reasons for the current drop-off but I'll point to one huge factor in my mind – the health of Rob Gronkowski. Gronk has two touchdowns this season and neither came from inside the red zone. He's been banged up and frankly has had trouble getting open inside the red zone. That was the case against the Jets when he was blanketed on consecutive plays by Jamal Adams. Sony Michel's health has also been a problem as he's missed three games this season while Rex Burkhead and Jeremy Hill have been on the sideline for most of the season as well. Those factors to me have led to some struggles running the ball in from inside the 5 much more so than any issues with the offensive line, and Blount has been gone for a while and these problems have really just started this season so I don't think that's the issue.
Paul Perillo

So far the Patriots had faced only one legit team - the Chiefs (Texans QB was too rusty in game 1). It would be interesting to see how the Pats fair against the Vikings. My concern remains - Patriots LBs struggle against short passes to RBs. They just don't have the coverage speed. Against a team like the Jets, the Patriots made adjustments not fearing McCown throwing deep, but how do you win anything in this league if you have slow LBs? What's the defensive plan?_ Jim Lorn_

I would give the Patriots a little more credit for the Texans win but overall I agree that Deshaun Watson was not nearly at 100 percent in his first game back from a torn ACL. But I'm not exactly sure what that means. The Patriots are 8-3 and in the thick of the race in the AFC. They have a good shot at getting a bye, and that will be true even if they only have a couple of wins against what most believe are quality teams. The defense has had its problems at times but again, so has everyone else's. Defense in today's game can't be measured the way we did even as recently as a few years ago with Denver and Seattle. No one shuts down opponents like that, and no one has linebackers that can keep up with the speed of the passing backs that are so prevalent this year. So, while the Patriots defense definitely looks slow at times, try comparing it to defenses from teams that you feel are more talented than New England. I bet you won't see a huge difference between the Patriots and Steelers or Chiefs or Rams or even the Saints. If the Patriots are going to make a run in January it will be due to the offense leading the way – and I wouldn't bet against that happening.
Paul Perillo

Will the Patriots show any interest in Reuben Foster? They seem to have a positive way with "troubled, talented" players._ Dan Naz_

Foster has a history of domestic violence and I can't see any way the Patriots would be interested in adding such a player to their roster.
Paul Perillo

Is there any evidence, or first-hand source material, that the style that the Patriots employ on their pass rush serves to discourage or otherwise limit sack production? I never heard this when Tully Banta Cain, Mike Vrabel and Chandler Jones recorded double digit sack years, nor when Rob Ninkovich had 8 sacks three years in a row. Now all of a sudden the Pats rush is being questioned (justifiably so) and some media types are claiming that the "system isn't conducive to high sack totals." Is that really possible or just ignorance on their part? It seems to me we just don't have the players that can constantly win one-on-one battles sufficient to tackle the QB._ Fred Walsh_

In my 20 years covering the team I've never heard any Patriots defensive player tell me they are coached not to get after the quarterback. The system does not prevent pass rushers from getting sacks. The Patriots do require a more disciplined approach than some teams up front, especially against teams with mobile quarterbacks, but that doesn't mean they aren't allowed to get after the passer. The players you mentioned certainly played under the same system that is currently in place and they didn't seem to have the same problems generating sacks. In my mind the team simply hasn't been effective enough individually in creating sacks. They have been able to get some pressure at times but in terms of actual sacks they've been lacking. Trey Flowers is probably the team's best pass rusher but he hasn't had a lot of help this year. It seems when the Patriots are able to generate some heat, they need to blitz in order to do it. There are times when the Patriots front is asked to be more controlled against running quarterbacks but that doesn't explain the lack of pressure for the entire season.
Paul Perillo

Any thought of moving Obi Melifonwu to LB? He is on the bigger side and he is fast. We look awfully slow at LB._ Jeff Evaul_

That is actually the role Melifonwu played briefly on Sunday against the Jets. Early in the game he got a few snaps as part of sub packages and was serving as one of the linebackers. He didn't play too much (just eight snaps) but he did see some time there. I wouldn't expect much in terms of contributions from him this season, but if the team wants to keep him around in the offseason he could be a candidate to fill that sort of hybrid role on defense with some development. As you said, he has the size and speed to perform in such a role.
Paul Perillo

*I have a question about Dont'a Hightower. He currently has a cap hit of $8.5 million, which rises to just under $10.5M next year. He is often subbed out on third-and-long. He definitely appears to have lost a step. Does his contract relative to his level of play represent good value to the Patriots? Could you see the Patriots moving on from him next year? *Gary Madera
East Hanover, N.J.

Hightower looks to have lost some of his speed and explosiveness but he's still a valuable player to the defense. He has managed to make some plays – like his interception of Patrick Mahomes against Kansas City – but overall I'd agree that he hasn't been as productive this season as he has when healthy in the past. His contract is definitely high enough where the team might look at it for next season. My guess is there will be some sort of restructuring in order for him to stick around. Otherwise I could see the Patriots deciding to move on, because he hasn't been at his best.
Paul Perillo

Josh Allen looks like a really good QB, and the Jets rookie QB also seems like a real deal. Pats will beat these rookies in Foxborough but beyond that? This often called "weak" Eastern division can flip next season especially if Brady keeps declining, Gronk and other playmakers leave or simply age. Is there a reason to be optimistic about next season and beyond?_ Robert Hayner_

First and foremost, I haven't seen as much strong play from either rookie quarterback as you have, especially Allen. Other than the occasional run, Allen looks like he's light years away from being an accomplished passer. Darnold has had more moments than Allen but still lacks the consistency that will likely come with more time to develop. But I'm not sure either the Bills or Jets will be ready to seriously threaten anyone next year either, although I admit a lot can change from Year 1 to Year 2, especially for a quarterback. The teams will have different players and different looks next year but until I see otherwise there's no way I'm going to assume the Patriots won't be the cream of the crop in the division they have dominated for 20 years.
Paul Perillo

Josh McCown who was starting his second game after Jets were decimated by the lowly Bills 41-10, has been throwing and completing short-mid range passes against the Pats like he was Peyton Manning. If not for his forced and foolish long ball that was intercepted, Jets could have had a lead heading in the fourth quarter of the game with Patriots at full strength. What does it say about this team's defense and its chances to contain the Steelers on the road?_ Mark Smolin_

I will admit that I often fall into these traps from time to time. I take the performance against a bad team like the Jets and extrapolate that to means the Patriots would lose to a good team like the Steelers. But it doesn't work that way, at least it almost never does. The defense still only allowed 13 points against the Jets even though at times McCown did more the ball effectively and probably should have been able to put more points on the board. That doesn't mean the defense will play the same against Pittsburgh, or anyone else for that matter. The Patriots did enough to win on the road against the Jets and now will need to prepare for the remaining five games. How they play in the weeks moving forward will be much more important than how they played against New York.
Paul Perillo

Even if the Patriots draft a quality QB next year, he would need a year to learn the system. Jimmy Garoppolo was already here, ready to play, possibly even now. Do you think it was a mistake not to franchise him and see what happens with Brady?_ Stan Cohen_

I don't think it was a realistic option to franchise Garoppolo and allow Brady to continue as the starter. That would have been a huge chunk of cap space and more importantly, created an uncomfortable situation at quarterback. If you wanted to keep Garoppolo the only option in my mind would have been to deal Brady, and the Patriots weren't ready to do that (neither was I). Keeping the two together was not really an option as Garoppolo wouldn't want to sign the tender to stay as the backup and Brady was going to continue as the starter. Really, the only alternative was to trade Garoppolo and look for another potential replacement down the road.
Paul Perillo

Not really a question but if 1) he hadn't missed the third quarter being hurt, and 2) he didn't have the two holding calls on big runs, Sony would have run for over 200 yards._ Pascal Rawls-Philippe_

I'm not really a big fan of the "if" game but just playing along here … Michel didn't miss the whole third quarter – he missed a few plays. He left the game following a run on third-and-one, and the Patriots used Cordarrelle Patterson to pick up the first down on the next play. He then missed three incomplete passes, and the next series in which New England went 75 yards for a touchdown on four plays. Michel then returned to start the fourth quarter so he missed a total of eight offensive plays. He still racked up 21 carries, just four short of his career high. As for the holding penalties – without the holding it's impossible to know how many yards Michel would have gained on those plays. I'm perfectly content with the 133 yards he piled up – good enough for his career best.
Paul Perillo

Do you think where the Patriots have been such a successful organization for so long that it actually amps up their opponents? We all know very successful teams usually become very hated by everyone but their own fans. Sometimes I wonder if it's a motivator for the other teams because too many times you see underdogs come out and spank the Pats or put up a very good fight. Then the very same team that gives them fits goes on and gets spanked by a much lesser team then the Pats. Maybe I'm just searching for a good excuse for poor play?_ Mike Schriver_

There is definitely some truth to this – even if it isn't really an excuse for poor play. Opponents, especially on the road, get up to play against the Patriots each and every week. It's a product of being so successful for so long. Teams want to measure themselves against the best, and for the better part of two decades that's been New England. This is nothing new as it's been the case for quite some time. Only now it seems the Patriots are allowing that to have an impact. In the past the Patriots would gear up to take on an inferior opponent and more often than not come away with an easy win. This season nothing has been easy, especially away from Gillette Stadium. There are a lot of factors involved, but it's hard to dismiss it as reality.
Paul Perillo

There have been a few games this season when the Pats offense came out on a blistering pace. They scored a quick, impressive seven and then had a difficult time. Is it possible that other coaches have just become too familiar with Josh McDaniels' methods and schemes? It seemed great last offseason when he chose to stay but now I'm wondering if fresh ideas might have been better?_ Matthew Blackwelder_

There have been a lot of questions about the coaching staff this year but the reality to me is the personnel isn't as strong as it once was. In fact, I believe the coaching is the biggest part of the reason for the early success. Game plans have identified the areas where the Patriots can attack, and on the occasions when it's worked early in the game New England has been able to jump out quick. Once the opponent adjusts to the game plan, things have bogged down as talent takes over. The Patriots still have plenty of players who can make plays, but the depth isn't as strong as it once was and that has impacted some of the games. So, I don't believe it's anything that McDaniels has done wrong but rather a product of personnel that has led to the at times choppy offensive play.
Paul Perillo

I was wondering if Ja'Whaun Bentley will return this year? Haven't heard anything about his recovery. Is he done for the year or can he return to the lineup? We could definitely use his help on defense._ Dan Nepini_

The Patriots activated both Duke Dawson and Rex Burkhead off IR as their two players designated to return. Bentley is no longer eligible to return in 2018. His injury was such that he wouldn't have been healthy enough to come back anyway, but I do agree that he would have helped the defense. In the meantime we've seen him join the team on road trips and he's been part of the team's meetings on a regular basis so clearly Belichick sees potential in the linebacker down the road.
Paul Perillo

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