Earlier this week we asked the question Why did the Patriots struggle in short yardage situations against the Chargers? I blamed the offensive playcalling saying that New England was throwing the ball too much when it should have been rushing, due to the 10% greater conversion rate of rushing attempts.
It turns out, the issue runs a little bit deeper than the surface of play calling. In fact, the Patriots rank 13th for highest run play percentage in short yardage situation (1 or 2 yards to go on any down). It also turns out that there's no correlation between teams with more running plays converting more short yardage attempts.
No relation between more rushing plays in short yardage and a higher conversion rate for the offense: pic.twitter.com/rD2bkWtNHN— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) December 10, 2014
So while rushing converts more, it's likely due to a healthy mix of passing and rushing to keep the defense off-balance- which also makes sense.
The real issue with short yardage plays isn't just about playcalling. It's that the Patriots rank 31st out of 32 teams in converting short yardage situations on the year with a weak 56.1% conversion rate (and side note: this means that it's better than a coin flip to go for it in short yardage plays. They should always go for it when on the other side of the field).
This groups the Patriots with offensive powerhouses like the Vikings (26th), Washington (27th), the Ravens (28th), the Jaguars (29th), the Giants (30th), and the Lions (32nd). Not the best company when evaluating offense.
Why does this problem exist? It seems as if players either aren't succeeding, or aren't being placed in situations to succeed. Let's review:
Tom Brady has thrown to Rob Gronkowski 9 times in short situations. Gronk has converted 7. One of the misses was an interception that is entirely on Brady for throwing too short against the Colts. The other was a well defended by by Charles Woodson. That's good.
Shane Vereen has had his number called 12 times as either a rusher or a receiver (although none since the Broncos game). He has converted his first 2 attempts against the Dolphins, and then just 1 of his next 10 short yardage plays, including five unsuccessful goal line plays. That's not good.
Brandon LaFell has only seen two targets in short yardage plays, and just one since the opening week- and it resulted in a touchdown against the Packers. Why isn't he more involved?
Or why isn't Jonas Gray, with his 78% conversion rate, seeing time over LeGarrette Blount and his 57% rate?
Simply enough, a lot of the blame can be directed at the offensive line. The Patriots conversion rate while running the ball (55.8%) is 11.6% below the league average of 67.4%. Give New England a league average rushing attack in short yardage plays and the team jumps 10 ranks.
The Patriots 56.7% conversion on passing attempts is a tick below the league average of 57.6%, which is unacceptable for a premier passing attack like New England, but it isn't too far from teams like the Colts (56.1%) or the Chargers (59.3%).
There's room for improvement in both facets of the offense, but the team will need to start converting their rushing downs at a higher clip if they want to have more overall success. It might just be as easy as going from Blount to Gray in these scenarios.
Looking at the defensive side, the Patriots rank 28th while allowing 69.4% of teams to convert in short yardage- and they rank 30th in conversion rate against rushing plays, with 77.8% converting into a successful play. The Patriots are surrounded by the Titans, Buccaneers, Texans, and the Panthers. That's not good company.
As it turns out, teams that get run on will allow a higher conversion rate in short yardage plays:
Teams that get rushed on allow a higher conversion rate. No surprise. pic.twitter.com/Eo1lcYOIQ8— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) December 10, 2014
How does match up with the fact that offenses that run a lot don't result in a higher conversion rate? It comes to the defense and their ability. Defenses that can be run on will allow a higher conversion rate to all opponents. Defenses that can't, won't.
What this means is that the Patriots need to pick their third down plays based upon individual defenses and a blanket "they need to run more" or "they should pass more" change won't work. They need to tailor every game's short yardage play call to their opponent and then they just need to execute.
Everything starts with the coaches making the decisions, but there's no question that the players in the trenches need to do more in order to improve the short yardage situations on both sides of the ball.