The Run and the Red Zone: Patriots Offensive Efficiency Will be Put to the Test Against Saints

While the Patriots have shown signs of fielding an efficient offense thus far, they will be facing a formidable New Orleans Saints defense in Week Three.
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Week Three of the 2021 NFL Season will be a fun one in Foxboro, Massachusetts The New England Patriots will host the New Orleans Saints on Sunday at Gillette Stadium. While New Orleans is primarily known for its high-powered and versatile offense, they also possess a more-than-formidable defense, capable of beating teams in various ways. If the Patriots are to be victorious on Sunday, they will need to exploit the Saints’ weaknesses. Unfortunately for the hometown team in Foxboro, there are not many.

Running on Empty?

As the 2021 season was set to begin, many considered the Patriots running game to be the strength of their offense. Protected by a powerful offensive line, Pats runners such as Damien Harris, James White, J.J. Taylor and rookie Rhmondre Stevenson were expected to provide the team with a diverse rushing attack. Thus far, New England has shown flashes of prowess in their running game. However, those moments have not been as abundant as previously anticipated. While some may point to the team’s preseason trade of Sony Michel as weakening their depth at the position, the true reason for the Patriots’ inability to establish their rushing attack lies within the health of starting right tackle Trent Brown. Since suffering a calf injury early in the season-opener against the Miami Dolphins, Brown has not returned to the game day lineup. As a result, the Patriots have had difficulty generating consistency on the ground. Still, the Pats are a cut above the middle-of-the pack in rushing offense, ranking 13th in the league with an average of 113 yards per game.

The Pats success on the ground is due in large part to Harris, who leads the team with 162 rushing yards and 1 touchdown.The Patriots run-game strategy was further complicated this week with the 24-year-old being listed on the injury report with an ailing finger for both Wednesday and Thursday. While the 24-year-old was removed from the report on Friday, it is still possible that he may be less than full strength. As a result, Harris will need help from his teammates. Yet, production beyond him has been shaky, at best. James White also has one rushing touchdown, while gaining 32 yards on the ground. Reserve rushers J.J. Taylor, Brandon Bolden and rookie Rhamondre Stevenson have seen the field sporadically. Veteran Brandon Bolden remains a situational option, but would not be considered an every-down option.

When it comes to defending the run, New Orleans is more than effective. Thus far, the Saints have allowed just 66 yards per game, and a 2.8-yard average. They employ a stout front seven, featuring defensive linemen Cameron Jordan, Shy Tuttle, Christian Ringo, Carl Granderson, and Tanoh Kpassagnon. Their linebackers Demario Davis, Kwon Alexander, Kaden Elliss, and Zack Baun are a versatile grouping, showing the ability to help set the edge and assist in stuffing the run. Even with Harris fully healthy, the Pats runners face a worthy challenge on Sunday.

In the Zone

Pats rookie quarterback Mac Jones has been quite efficient in his first two starts. Jones followed a 74.4 completion percentage in the opener against Miami by completing 73.3 percent of his passes (22-of-30 passes) for 186 yards against the New York Jets in Week Two. He is the first quarterback with a 70-plus completion percentage in each of his first two career games (with a min.10 attempts in each game).

However, Jones is only averaging 6.2 yards per pass play. This ranks him 23rd in the league, and has earned the 22-year-old a bit of criticism. Also, the Pats are a combined 2-of-7 in the red zone in the first two games, with both tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith having been targeted only once in Week Two. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels must begin to take some chances with his young quarterback, and allow his two tight ends to create mismatches and win contested catches in the red area. Additionally, the Pats need to test his ability to throw deep, with receivers Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne and Jakobi Meyers. While some credit should be given to the Jets’ defensive strategy in preventing some of those chances, New England will eventually need to dial up some looks in which Jones takes some shots deep down field.

The Saints secondary will make it tough to improve in these areas. New Orleans features a deep secondary that can create turnovers. They also have the top-ranked red zone defense in football. That is not exactly encouraging for a Patriots offense that has struggled to score. Though Marshon Lattimore (hand) and C.J. Gardner-Johnson (knee) have been limited in practice this week, both players were removed from the injury report and will play against the Pats on Sunday. As they attempt to counteract the Saints’ defense, New England might need to get Smith and Henry more involved against the Saints tough pass defense. P.J. Williams, Paulson Adebo and newcomer Bradley Roby join Lattimore and Gardner-Johnson with veterans Marcus Williams and Malcolm Jenkins at safety. Despite their depth at all three levels, the Pats offense must display a sense of urgency in finding the endzone to avoid a long, arduous afternoon in Foxboro on Sunday.