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Patriots' offense last in league in red zone

Normally a strength of the New England Patriots in recent years, the red zone offense is a major problem so far in 2013.

Quarterback Tom Brady’s offense ranks dead last — No. 32 in the NFL — in red zone offense in the Patriots 3-0 start to the new season. New England’s new-look, youthful offense, minus top targets Danny Amendola (groin) and Rob Gronkowski (forearm/back), scored only four touchdowns in 13 trips inside the 20.

That is a miserable 30.8 percent touchdown rate. Compare that to the Miami Dolphins, who lead the NFL with touchdowns on 87.5 percent of their red zone drives this season.

More importantly, compare it to New England’s own 70-percent success rate through the entirety of last season, when the Patriots led the NFL as the most successful red zone offense.

Things have been so bad this fall that the Patriots even have the worst scoring percentage in the red zone, at 69.2 percent, after coming away totally empty-handed on four of the 13 trips.

Those shutouts came thanks to an interception and a Brady fumbled snap.

Those key mistakes were the first thing Bill Belichick pointed to when asked how his team could improve its red zone struggles.

“Number one, not turning the ball over,” Belichick said. “That would be number one.”

“We’ve definitely left some points on the board, just poor execution,” Brady said. “I’ve been one of the main culprits. Hopefully I try to improve that. You have to get down there and score points. Especially when you play good teams, you can’t leave points out there. Like last week, we had a great opportunity for seven points. Not only did we not get seven, we didn’t get any. You have to be able to capitalize on scoring opportunities.”

Another major improvement would be the return of Gronkowski. He was upgraded from doubtful to questionable for last week’s game against Tampa Bay, but remained inactive.

Both Gronkowski and Belichick emphasized how much progress the Pro Bowl tight end has made in his recovering in recent weeks and there is distinct possibility that he’ll make his season debut Sunday night in Atlanta.

New England could also get a boost in the red zone going against a banged up Atlanta defense that ranks 23rd against opponents inside the 20. The Falcons have allowed touchdowns on seven of 10 opponents trips into the red zone, and points on all 10 trips.

That’s in stark contrast to New England’s first three opponents - the Bills (t-9th), Jets (1st) and Buccaneers (3rd) - who all sport top-10 red zone defenses at this point.

The Patriots average only 19.7 points per game through three weeks. That’s a 22nd in the league and a pretty big drop-off for a unit that led the NFL at 34.8 points per game a year ago.

New England could boost its scoring average, and its chances of going on the road to get a win this Sunday night in Atlanta, if it simply made better use of its trips into the red zone.

“The red zone certainly is an area of the field where any lack of execution - timing, those types of things - could impact your ability to score touchdowns and/or kick field goals. I would say there’s no common theme to some of the things that we’ve done down there that have hurt us, we just can do a better job of coaching things down there and a better job of executing some of the opportunities that we have when we get them in the games,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said.

“I would say we need to start with making sure that we don’t turn the ball over, because we’ve had a couple turnovers down there that we’ve been in position to potentially put on seven points and then turn the ball over and come away with absolutely nothing, and that always hurts. We’ve got to do a better job of taking care of the football, and we can coach and execute things better down there. We’re going to work real hard this week at trying to improve in that area of our game.”