The Patriots offense has looked much more efficient in the early going of the 2021 season with Mac Jones completing a high percentage of his throws and generally moving the team reasonably well. But the results thus far have been eerily similar to last year's struggles when it comes time to put points on the board.
It's not rocket science
Football math is the simplest kind: seven beats three every time. In other words, when a team gets inside the opponent's 20-yard line, coming away with field goals is a good way to get beat.
That's exactly how the Patriots managed to lose their opener against Miami as the offense managed just one touchdown on four trips inside the Dolphins red zone. Conversely, Miami was a perfect 2-for-2 on such trips and came away with the 17-16 victory.
Miami's ability to put seven points on the board instead of three proved to be the difference. The same was the case against the Jets as the offense again posted just one touchdown in three trips inside the red zone. It didn't matter only because rookie Zach Wilson's generous nature allowed the Patriots to post the blowout win anyway.
Much has been made thus far of the conservative nature of the offensive approach from in close. Josh McDaniels has yet to have Jones fire a single pass into the end zone, and some have wondered if a more lenient mindset might unlock the key to success.
Looking at a breakdown of the seven red-zone trips shows the Patriots failures have been due to myriad issues. In the first two games the offense has committed a penalty and a turnover while knocking on the door. It also has failed to run the ball with much effectiveness, which is surprising considered the makeup of the team and the strength of the offensive line.
Including penalties, the Patriots have run 18 plays inside the opponent's 20 and netted 37 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The 29 percent conversion rate ranks last in the league, although it's obviously very early in the season. Of the 18 plays, 10 have been runs with one getting wiped out by a holding call on Isaiah Wynn. The remaining nine attempts yielded 18 yards and a touchdown as well as a lost fumble.
Damien Harris has been the main component for New England in the red zone. He's carried the ball six times but has managed just 3 yards and his lost fumble ultimately short-circuited a potential go-ahead drive against Miami. James White racked up most of the yardage with back-to-back 7-yard carries, the second of which resulted in a touchdown Sunday against the Jets. J.J. Taylor picked up a yard on his lone attempt.
Things haven't been much better through the air as Jones completed 4 of 7 passes for 19 yards and a touchdown. He also took a sack that was wiped out due to a roughing the passer penalty, which set up the lone touchdowns pass. Most of the passes were either short dump-offs or screens as we've yet to see anything much beyond the line of scrimmage. He missed an open Jakobi Meyers on a quick out that halted a drive against Miami that led to a field goal.
It's too early to draw any definitive conclusions as to why Patriots continue to struggle from in close, but the one thing that seems to stick out is the play of the offensive line. The loss of Trent Brown (he left with a calf injury after just seven snaps in the opener and missed the Jets game) has made a major impact. Justin Herron and Yasir Durant both struggled in his place, and the running game has yet to get untracked. Jones has been under pretty consistent pressure as well, which likely has led to the shorter throws.
It's a pretty small sample size and Jones' career is just beginning so there's plenty of time left for improvement. But if the Patriots are truly going to contend for the postseason they'll need to take advantage of their scoring opportunities at a much higher rate.
Playing to win
Kudos to Ravens coach John Harbaugh for recognizing the situation in his team's scintillating 36-35 win over Kansas City Sunday night. Baltimore recovered a fumble to thwart the Chiefs apparent go-ahead scoring drive but still needed a first down to melt the clock because the Chiefs had all three timeouts remaining. With 1:05 left and facing a fourth-and-1 at his own 43, Harbaugh enthusiastically conferred with his quarterback and chose to go for it. Lamar Jackson made the gamble pay off by running for the first down and the game was over. Had Jackson been stopped, KC would have taken over on the cusp of field goal range and been in position to win. But had the Ravens punted, Patrick Mahomes would have had a minute to move into field goal range, needing about 55 yards (assuming an effective punt forced the Chiefs to start at their own 10) to do so. Anyone watching knew giving the ball back to the Chiefs likely would have spelled disaster regardless of field position. Harbaugh knew it and he did what so many other coaches are unwilling to do, and it paid off.
Week 2 tidbits
Raise your hand if you correctly predicted the Raiders and Broncos would be the lone unbeaten teams in the AFC after two weeks. Denver's road was rather easy, although both wins came away from the Mile High City against the Giants and Jags. But there was nothing routine about the Raiders start. They followed their pulsating Monday night win over the Ravens with an impressive road win over a tough Pittsburgh team. Vegas GM Mike Mayock has said his team needs to qualify for the postseason, and early indications are that his team will definitely contend. … I tend to be a stickler for poor game management when it comes to coaching the clock and situation, but I've never seen anything like what Houston's David Culley did Sunday in Cleveland. Tied at 7 and facing a third-and-15 from his own 38, Culley saw Tyrod Taylor connect with Brandin Cooks for 13 yards to set up a fourth-and-2. However, the Brown Takk McKinley was called for being offside. Culley's decision seemed to be to accept the penalty and create third-and-10 from the 43 or decline it and roll the dice on fourth-and-2 from the Browns 49. He chose neither, opting to decline the penalty and punted instead. Culley explained that he wanted to try to pin Cleveland deep in its own end but failed when the kick went for a touchback. The explanation is stupefying. He could have run the third-and-10 play and then punted with the same opportunity to play field position. Or he could have gone for the fourth-and-2. But in essence he chose to punt on third down, and the only thing I can think of is he simply lost track of the situation. Not a great look for a rookie coach. … It's still early and the kinks are being worked out but the taunting rules are already impacting games. Seattle's D.J. Reed was called for taunting in the fourth quarter of a tight game, allowing the Titans some free yards. Reed had tight coverage on A.J. Brown and briefly gestured toward the receiver before turning away to continue celebrating. That was enough to draw the flag. In Los Angeles, Jared Cook had a go-ahead touchdown taken away on an illegal shift penalty while also being flagged for taunting after the play. On the ensuing snap, Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert was somehow ruled to have been sacked even though he threw the ball away while backpedaling at the time. No one wants to see poor sportsmanship and potential fights, but the league would do well to reserve this penalty for truly egregious examples of such, not mild celebrations following good plays. Some very curious officiating over the weekend to be sure.
Interesting first couple of weeks around the league, including at the top. Losses by Kansas City, Cleveland, Buffalo, Green Bay, and Seattle highlighted an upset-heavy start to the season.
- Tampa Bay (2-0) – No such problems with upsets for Tom Brady's boys. With nine touchdown passes already he may be headed for his best season yet.
- L.A. Rams (2-0) – Nice early-season showdown coming up this week with the Bucs headed to LA to take on Matthew Stafford's Rams.
- Kansas City (1-1) – The Chiefs appear to have their annual early-season struggles stopping the run, and despite that they were a Clyde Edwards-Helaire fumble away from victory in Baltimore.
- Buffalo (1-1) – Josh Allen still hasn't regained his 2020 form but the Bills defense has been stout early on. Don't look know but Buffalo might actually have a pass rush with rookie Gregory Rousseau picking up a pair of sacks in a shutout of Miami.
- Cleveland (1-1) – The Browns had to work for it against Houston and they're getting a little banged up in the process, but Cleveland still has the potential to make noise.