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An investigation into the Patriots’ struggles in the red zone: Part 2

Let's take a look at the worst red zone stretch of the season

New England Patriots v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

As I highlighted in part 1 of the video review, many of the issues the Patriots have had in the red zone in 2017 have been overwhelmingly because of execution errors, not personnel or play calling issues. In weeks 1-4, the Patriots went 11-19 in the RZ, while in weeks 5-8 the success rate fell to 6/15. Here’s a breakdown of those plays.

3rd and 5 at TB 9

(1:31 - 1st) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass incomplete short middle to J.White [R.Ayers Jr.].

In this play, I’m going to give half the blame to the play calling and half of the blame to the offensive line. The play calling blame goes to the 1st and 2nd down play calls: 2 runs up the middle. Even with those passive and unambitious plays, the Patriots found themselves in a manageable 3rd and 5 situation.

Unfortunately, on 3rd down, the O-line loses in less than 2 seconds. It’s Marcus Cannon’s man, grizzled vet Robert Ayers, that ultimately gets Brady by the ankles and forces a throwaway, but Nate Solder is losing his matchup as well and Joe Thuney is being pushed back, preventing Brady from stepping up into the pocket. At age 40, Brady isn't agile enough to escape to the right.

Link and time stamp: (28:30)

3rd and Goal at TB 6

(1:30 - 2nd) (Shotgun) T.Brady scrambles up the middle to TB 5 for 1 yard (C.McDonald).

If any game has the argument that the Patriots don’t have the appropriate personnel, it’s this one. Having Hollister and not Gronk really hurt, and it may have affected both the play calling and the decision making throughout the game. For the first failed red zone drive, I doubt you see the Patriots run twice if Gronkowski was healthy. An on this drive, the presence of Hollister (top of the screenshot) isn’t enough for Brady to pull the trigger. If it’s Gronk, I think Brady throws a jump ball to him.

The 2nd screenshot shows the same play from a different angle. The Bucs are playing a sort of goal line zone defense and the defenders of Hogan and Hollister switch as they make their respective cuts. Brady throws a jump ball if it’s 6’6 Gronk (or the 6’7 Martellus Bennett) but not the 6’4 Hollister.

Although the blame for this failure is personnel, this will likely never be an issue for the rest of the season. Since this play, Gronk got healthy and the Patriots added another prime RZ target in Bennett.

Link and time stamp: (31:42)

Total: 1/3

3rd and 15 at NYJ 16

(14:53 - 4th) (Shotgun) J.White right guard to NYJ 9 for 7 yards (M.Claiborne).

I’m torn on this play. It’s not garbage time. The play call is passive. But I can completely understand what the Patriots were doing here. It’s the 4th quarter and a FG makes it a 2 score game. A draw is a safe way to ensure that nothing sketchy happens, whether it be an INT, sack, or a wonky tipped pass. It’s not like the Patriots went all conservative once they reached the RZ: they came out throwing on 2nd and 3rd down, but an OPI and an incompletion left the Pats in a 3rd and long. So for this I’m going to give half blame to poor execution for the OPI and half blame to play calling. But have the record show that I don’t really mind the outcome that much. And the Pats succeeded on their other 2 RZ trips on the day. Singling out this possession as evidence of the Pats struggling in the RZ is very nitpicky.

Link and time stamp: OPI (2:22:22) Draw (2:24:00)

Total: 2/3

3rd and 9 at ATL 10

(4:52 - 2nd) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass incomplete short left to C.Hogan (K.Neal).

Brady’s poor trust for Brandin Cooks in the red zone strikes again. This play should be an easy 6 points but Brady doesn’t even look his way. The first screenshot below shows that perhaps some blame should be on the offensive line since Brady had to be flushed. But I don’t think that was an issue at all. The Falcons only rushed 3 and Brady had lots of green to step into. But crucially, he never set his feet properly as shown by the below screenshot.

Below is the overhead replay cam of the play. Despite Keanu Neal having inside leverage on Chris Hogan (route in the back of the end zone), Brady throws it his way. Meanwhile, Cooks is open on the corner route by about 4 yards. Very bad decision by Brady.

It has been discussed ad nauseum but I don’t think that Brady’s lack of trust of Cooks is a long-term issue. Take Malcolm Mitchell for example. He had a grand total of 1 red zone target through week 9 of last season. From week 10 on, he had 11 (!). WR chemistry is hard, but once Brady and Cooks get on the same page in the RZ, look out.

Link and time stamp: (19:55)

3rd and Goal at ATL 1

(4:56 - 3rd) M.Gillislee right tackle to ATL 3 for -2 yards (V.Beasley, K.Ishmael).

This play reminds me a lot of the Jets play. It's not quite garbage time but it again feels nitpicky to really get mad at the play calling. The Patriots had first and goal at the 9 and called back to back runs up the middle for Dion Lewis. Even though those would qualify as "conservative" play calls, they were pretty successful, each gaining 4 yards. A 3rd and goal stretch run from the 1 yard line seems like a questionable call, but it's actually executed pretty well outside of 1 player.

It’s a little difficult to tell by the screenshots, but Marcus Cannon ruins this play. He's extremely slow coming out of his stance (maybe because of his gimpy ankle) and not only blocks no one, but actually makes contact with Dwayne Allen and ruins his block. Vic Beasley splits the 2 for a TFL. It's a shame because Mason, Hollister and Develin have absolutely mauled their defenders.

Like I said above, I actually don't mind these play calls based on the score, the flow of the game, and the personnel. But the execution on 3rd down was poor. Why would you run that stretch run to the right behind Cannon and Allen when you have two elite run blockers in Solder and Gronk on the left? Pre-snap, Hollister motioned to the right. If he doesn't motion and the Pats run the same play to the left, I think that's 6. Once again, this failure is half poor execution and half playcalling. But to give this RZ trip a lot of scrutiny seems to be misguided.

Link and time stamp: (29:48)

3rd and 12 at ATL 19

(0:39 - 4th) T.Brady kneels to ATL 20 for -1 yards.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Brady takes a knee in garbage time to end this red zone possession.

Total: 2/5

3rd and 2 at LAC 6

(4:10 - 2nd) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass incomplete short middle to B.Cooks.

Oh the irony, Brandin Cooks gets his 2nd red zone target of the season (the 1st was on the previous play gaining 6 yards on 2nd and 8) and Brady misses a wide open Amendola instead. The Patriots can get a 1st down by getting to the 4 yard line and he's wide open at the 2.

There is phantom pressure from both Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram on the play but as you can see in the 2nd screenshot, 1 second later, there is absolutely nothing Brady has to worry about. This is a rare case of Brady's dancing and awareness in the pocket being a negative. This failure is due to a poor read by Brady.

Link and time stamp: (12:47)

3rd and 8 at LAC 18

(0:28 - 2nd) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass incomplete short middle to D.Amendola.

Solder allows a pressure against Ingram and Brady makes a horrible throw. The play is basically over after the 1st screenshot, and full resposibility should be on the offensive line but Brady almost makes a bad situation worse. He has to either launch the ball out of bounds or hit White or Gronk to the right on the check down. Desmond King, the diving blur in the 2nd screenshot gets both hands on the errant throw.

Link and time stamp: (23:03)

3rd and 8 at LAC 12

(1:55 - 4th) M.Gillislee left guard to LAC 8 for 4 yards (J.Bosa).

I had to double take a few times when I looked up the win expectancy from this play and found it to be 99.9% after this play. The win expectancy factors in point spread and whether the team is home or away, so the true WE was likely not 99.9%, but it was in that ballpark.

Crucially, I can't criticize this play call at all. The Pats were up 5 with 1:55 remaining and the Chargers had no timeouts. That left them with just over a minute to march all the way down the field to score a TD and get a 2pt conversion just to force overtime. Dispute whether this was garbage time or not, but running the ball was absolutely the right move. Blame garbage time or game situation, not execution or any other reason.

Total: 1/4

First half total: 17/34 a 50% conversion rate, down from 64% last year.

Final tally of the reasons why the Patriots failed:

Brady: 4

personnel: 1.5

poor execution: 2

offensive line: 3

garbage time: 5

play calling: 1.5


The final tally says a lot about what is going on. Out of the 17 failures, a whopping 5 of them are because of garbage time. That's an astounding number for only halfway through the season. Last year, the Patriots had only 4 garbage time red zone failures for the entire season plus playoffs.

The other thing that stands out is that Brady has not been himself in the red zone. He has missed throws to open receivers and in general, has done a lot of scrambling when it wasn't the right decision. Excluding offensive line failures and garbage time, Brady has run the ball or thrown the ball away 5 times on red zone 3rd downs. For a 40 year old pocket passer those are not great trends.

Now for the overwhelming positive side of the analysis, these are by and large very fixable problems. Play calling and personnel were only an issue in a small percentage of the RZ failures and the personnel aspect may have a permanent fix. The addition of Martellus Bennett as another viable big TE should ensure that the Week 5 situation where Jacob Hollister and Dwayne Allen topped the depth chart will never happen again. If James White gets another shotgun carry on 3rd and 1 this season, I'll eat my hat.

And as bad as the O-line has played at times, there were really only about 4 plays (including the Cannon run block failure vs ATL) out of 34 total red zone opportunities where they were the primary reason for failure. Given the strength of some of the defensive lines the Patriots have played this year, I'll take it.

Going forward into the 2nd half of the season, there will be a significant improvement and correction to the mean. Brady will cut down on uncharacteristic mental errors and the Patriots added another RZ target in Martellus Bennett. The rapport between Cooks and Brady will only get stronger and Malcolm Mitchell has a chance to return and be a contributor.

Despite the struggles, the Patriots still are the #1 team by offensive DVOA, #2 team in trips to the RZ, and #3 team in 3rd down conversion rate. In the words of another famous #12, R-E-L-A-X.