The Patriots weren't the red zone scoring monsters throughout the 2018 regular season that they became in the postseason, but they were far better than they are now.
The Pats finished 12th in the 2018 regular season with a solid 62.86% scoring rate. Nine games into this season, they're ranked 21st with a 50% efficiency rate. Not good, but not surprising given the retirement of powerful blocker and big target Rob Gronkowski and injuries to multiple offensive linemen and fullback James Develin.
The blocks aren't there for Sony Michel the way that they were when he followed Develin and a dominant line into the end zone six times in three postseason games.
The Patriots aren't any good in the red zone because they aren't any good running the football. And why is that? Because they don't block well, an atypical problem for the perennial Super Bowl contenders.
Michel averaged 4.5 yards per carry in the 2018 regular season, 4.7 in the postseason. He's averaging 3.3 yards per carry this season. The easy answer: Michel's not nearly as good as he was as a rookie.
It's also the wrong answer. If that were the case, rookie Damien Harris, a third-round draft choice, would have played in more than two games and carried the ball more than four times.
It's the blocking. The impact of losing center David Andrews for the season to a blood clot in his lungs has been a major blow, particularly in the running game. Ted Karras' versatility ideally suits him to his backup role because he can fill in anywhere, but on a week-to-week basis he can't be expected to fill Andrews' spot without a significant dropoff.
So that leads us to another easy answer to the running woes in general and red zone problems in particular: Tough luck on the injury front is to blame.
Wrong answer. That's an excuse, and the Patriots don't cling to excuses. Injuries are part of the game and being prepared for them with quality depth has been a consistent strength during the Patriots' decades-long reign atop the NFL.
Their failure to shore up depth on the O-Line and at tight end has led to an endless stream of players making cameo appearances on the practice squad and/or on the roster, even at the key left tackle spot, where Marshall Newhouse was signed as an in-season free agent and quickly became the starter.
Their red zone shortcomings can be traced to the past three drafts. Despite Gronkowski leaving a trail of crumbs in recent seasons toward his eventual decision to retire, the Patriots have all but ignored the tight end position on draft day for most of the decade.
Not the case with the O-line. They selected plenty of bodies the past three drafts, but those bodies either have been unhealthy or untalented or both.
The Pats have used five picks in the three drafts and they have combined for two games of experience. Other than Isaiah Wynn's two starts at left tackle at the beginning of this season, the Patriots have nothing in the way of blocks to show for five draft choices, one in the first round, two in the third, a fourth-rounder and a sixth-rounder.
Since fortifying the O-line with productive scouting of young talent to acquire Shaq Mason (third round) and undrafted free agent Andrews in 2015, and Joe Thuney (third round) and Karras (sixth round) in 2016, the Pats have come up empty, although Wynn projects well if he can stay healthy. The five draft picks: Antonio Garcia (third round) and Conor McDermottt (sixth round) in 2017; Wynn (first round) in 2018; Yodny Cajuste (third round) and Hijalte Froholdt (fourth round) in 2019.
Garcia's first season out of Troy was wiped out by a blood clot in his lungs. The Patriots released him in the spring and he since has been released by the Jets, Colts and Dolphins.
McDermott was waived on the eve of his first season, spent time with the Bills, and now is with the Jets.
Wynn lost his entire rookie season to a torn Achilles tendon. He suffered a toe injury against the Dolphins in Week 2 and is eligible to return to protect Tom Brady's blind side in Week 11, a home game vs. the Cowboys.
A three-year starter at West Virginia, Cajuste underwent a pre-draft surgery to repair a quadriceps muscle injury before the draft. He has been on the non-football injury list all season because of the quad.
A native of Denmark, Froholdt spent two high school seasons playing in the U.S. and became an offensive linemen for three seasons at Arkansas. Strong but raw, Froholdt has spent the season on injured reserve after suffering a shoulder injury in the final preseason game vs. the Giants.
For different reasons, both picks could be viewed as long-term plays. As it turned out, the Patriots needed immediate help at center and tackle, not an unreasonable expectation at O-line. Andrews and Mason combined for 21 starts as rookies in 2015 and Thuney started all 16 games of his rookie season a year later.
In contrast to swinging and missing in the draft at O-line, the Pats have pretty much passed on tight ends, selecting just two in the past eight drafts. Selected by the Pats in the sixth round in 2015, A.J. Derby was dealt midway through the 2016 season to the Broncos for a 2017 fifth-round choice. Chosen in the seventh round in 2018, Ryan Izzo (six catches, 114 yards, one touchdown) has shown more potential as a receiver than a blocker.
More than bad luck has played into the Patriots' blocking woes. Bad recent drafting is a big part of the problem as well. As a result, the Patriots likely will need to dominate defensively to make it to a fourth consecutive Super Bowl.