I’ll start this off by saying the New England Patriots really missed having tight end Rob Gronkowski on the field against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from a red zone perspective. He’s the best touchdown target for Tom Brady and his absence left a lot of plays on the field.
But with that said, the Patriots absolutely need to find a way to improve how they finish drives with scoring opportunities.
The Patriots have scored a touchdown on 59% of the drives (10 of 16 drives) that finish inside the 10 yard line in 2017, which is a huge drop from the 76% (91 of 120) that the team averaged from 2014-16. When you expand to the entire red zone, the 2017 Patriots have scored a touchdown on 57% of the drives (12 of 21), versus 65% of the drives from 2014-16 (119 of 183).
So what’s wrong with the Patriots offense? Part of it could be attributed to the loss of Julian Edelman. Edelman leads the Patriots with 28 receptions for 193 yards on 51 targets inside the red zone from 2014-16 and trails only Gronkowski in touchdowns. Edelman and Gronkowski are the only two players with 10 or more targets inside the 10 yard line over those three years, too.
With both Edelman and Gronkowski not available against the Buccaneers, it makes sense that the Patriots red zone offense would struggle. But we can also look at how Brady and the Patriots have distributed red zone targets in 2017 and highlight where a clear change needs to take place.
Chris Hogan leads the Patriots in 2017 with 9 red zone targets for 5 receptions and 4 touchdowns. He’s followed by Rob Gronkowski, who has just 1 reception on 6 targets, and Danny Amendola with 5 receptions on 5 targets. James White ranks fourth with 4 catches on 5 targets, but without a score. Rex Burkhead is the only other player with multiple red zone targets (2).
Inside the 10, it’s only Hogan, Gronkowski, and White with multiple targets.
Notice anyone missing? Where are the red zone targets for Brandin Cooks? What about finding a way to get Dwayne Allen involved? Remember that Cooks and Allen join Amendola as owners of the three best red zone reception rates since the start of 2012. If there’s any place on the field where Allen can help as a receiver, it’s by the end zone.
And when this is the only red zone target for Allen and Cooks combined in 2017...
...there needs to be a discussion in the offensive meeting rooms.
The Patriots reached the red zone on three drives against the Buccaneers, scoring just one touchdown to go with two field goals; that means they left 8 points on the field for those two field goal drives.
On the first field goal drive, the Patriots reached the red zone after a 31-yard run by Dion Lewis. New England ran the hurry-up and called the same exact play with Lewis, but Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy read the call and stopped the run.
Really hard to block Gerald McCoy when he has such an impressive jump off the snap and you have to reach block. pic.twitter.com/rdISYsJ5Kl— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) October 6, 2017
On the next play for second-and-7, the Patriots tried to spread out the Buccaneers defense with Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola, Jacob Hollister, and James White, but Tampa Bay countered the possible pass play with a perfect coverage set, forcing Brady to change the play at the line of scrimmage.
The Buccaneers challenged the Patriots to run the ball with two defensive backs across from Cooks and three defensive backs bracketing Hogan and Amendola, along with a linebacker covering Hollister. Brady opted to hand the ball off against the Buccaneers, but Joe Thuney whiffed on a pull block and White was only able to gain two yards.
On third-and-five from the Buccaneers’ 9-yard line, the Patriots were going to throw the ball, but Brady failed to sense the pressure of the Tampa pass rush and had to throw away the football to avoid the sack.
While I can’t correctly describe the route combinations without the All 22, Brady was running away from the routes of the three far side receivers, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Amendola were looping behind the secondary in the opposite direction of the defenders.
Unfortunately, Brady was unable to sense the pressure by Robert Ayers and the play failed, forcing the Patriots to kick the field goal.
On the other field goal drive, the Patriots picked up a first down on a third-and-2 with an easy 10 yards with an out route to Amendola. He also had Hogan and White open.
On the next play, the Patriots and Buccaneers lined up with almost the same alignment as the second-and-7 play from the earlier red zone drive. Again, the Patriots handed the ball off to White for a mere 1-yard gain.
The next play was another 2-yard gain for White, even though Danny Amendola might have been open for a touchdown and he was covered one-on-one against a linebacker that had turned his hips away from the receiver.
Maybe a double clutch towards White could have moved the other linebacker away from Amendola for an easy score, especially since Brady had such a clean pocket.
On third-and-goal, the Buccaneers double cover Cooks and Amendola, leaving Hogan and Jacob Hollister with one-on-ones. Hogan gets pushed out of bounds in what probably should’ve been illegal contact, while Hollister doesn’t keep moving as Brady starts to climb the pocket and accepts his coverage for the play. James White is watched by Brent Grimes and was not a viable target.
If Hollister kept moving, then he probably could have been open for a touchdown, but instead Brady scrambled for one yard and the Patriots settled for another field goal.
On the Patriots touchdown drive, they failed to run the ball on the first play with David Andrews, Joe Thuney, and Dwayne Allen all losing their blocks, but Brady found the one-on-one target on the very next play with Chris Hogan for a 5-yard score.
So it’s clear that the Buccaneers made the active decision to double team Cooks whenever the Patriots were in the red zone, but then they had to make a choice whether to double Amendola or Hogan at any given time. It was up to Brady to make the correct read and find the one-on-one.
The return of Gronkowski to the offense will certainly simplify the Patriots red zone approach because teams will likely double both Gronkowski and Cooks, leaving both Hogan and Amendola in single coverage for favorable match-ups.
The Buccaneers often employed Cover 4 (Quarters, for Madden fans) against the Patriots in the red zone because it allowed the safeties to watch and defend potential home run shots to Hogan or Cooks. Usually, the coverage resulted in the safety following Cooks.
The best way to beat Cover 4 is to put stress on the safeties and to force them to make a decision about which players to cover. Receivers can accomplish this by running patterns that cross at different times, with the safety hopefully breaking on the first receiver, so the second receiver is better able to shake their single coverage.
This is easier said than done, of course, with so much congestion in the end zone, but I also think the Patriots are missing out on an opportunity to get Cooks more involved in the red zone. Sure, he’s a good decoy at drawing away the safety so the player that aligns with him will likely have a one-on-one (it’s an easy read for Brady), but after looking at almost every red zone pass in 2017, there doesn’t seem to be any targets planned for Cooks.
Seriously. I don’t think Brady has ever actually looked in Cooks’ direction in the red zone and that’s not an exaggeration. While Hogan has certainly been productive in the red zone, the fact that the Patriots are converting drives inside the 10-yard line into touchdowns at a rate nearly 20% worse than in years past means that there is room for change.
The Patriots should draw up red zone plays where Cooks is more than a decoy. They should give Allen a real chance to prove himself as a touchdown target; they’re giving Hollister the red zone opportunities. They can keep feeding Gronkowski and Hogan, but they’ve combined for only 6 receptions on 15 targets inside the red zone.
An over-reliance on those two has led the Patriots red zone trips to stall and a few small changes are necessary to help the offense become more productive.