The New England Patriots converted all five of their trips to the red zone against the Miami Dolphins into touchdowns, just their second 100% day of the season (Other: week 3 against the Houston Texans). After converting on just 17 of 34 (50%) red zone trips over the first eight weeks of the season, the Patriots have scored touchdowns on 11 of 14 (79%) trips after the bye week.
What’s been the big difference? Well, simply put, the Patriots have been distributing the ball better to the best players on the roster.
In the eight games before the bye week, Chris Hogan led the Patriots with 11 red zone targets, followed by 10 for Rob Gronkowski, and 8 for James White. White also chipped in 10 red zone carries, bringing his red zone touches to 18, which trailed only Mike Gillislee with 21.
Notably absent in the red zone: Brandin Cooks had 3 targets. Rex Burkhead had 2 targets and 4 carries. Dino Lewis had 1 target and 10 carries.
In the three games after the bye week, Gronkowski still leads the Patriots with 5 red zone targets, but Cooks and Danny Amendola are tied for second with 4. Burkhead has 7 red zone opportunities and Lewis has 9; Gillislee and White have just 5 red zone opportunities combined.
This isn’t to say that Hogan is a bad red zone option- his four red zone touchdowns would greatly disagree with that statement- but that his return will provide a big boost to a red zone offense that finally figured out how to get Cooks and Lewis involved (and has Burkhead back from injury).
And the value of having Cooks involved was on full display against the Miami Dolphins and showed how the combination of Cooks and Gronkowski can beat most coverages.
5-yard touchdown pass to Gronkowski
This is a fairly simple play with Cooks on the nearside of the field and Gronkowski inline. Danny Amendola also plays a huge role in drawing the attention of three Dolphins defenders on the far side of the field.
Cooks runs a simple post route as he engages the Dolphins defender and clears him into the deep half of the end zone. The Dolphins safety is eyeing both Amendola and Cooks and stays in the middle of the field, leaving Gronkowski with a one-on-one against a safety.
That’s an easy win for Tom Brady and Gronkowski.
Cooks demands a double team because of his quickness, so teams will always offer a bracket and since Amendola drew about pair of defenders, that left Gronkowski in single coverage.
By putting Cooks and Gronkowski on the same side of the field, opposing defenses will have to decide whether to double both players, giving single coverage on the other side of the field, or risk single covering one of Cooks and Gronkowski. That’s a tough decision to make.
15-yard touchdown pass to Gronkowski
“That was a play we’ve been working on all week- it was made for a zone-type coverage,” Gronkowski said after the game. “It was Cooks [who cleared out the defenders]. So, when the play was called, I put my hand down and saw it was zone, and it’s either if the safety comes and takes me, Cooks gets the ball, or if the safety takes Cooks, I get the ball. So it just worked out good, and it made Cooks, obviously, clear out. He did an unbelievable job running his route going full speed with that post clearing everyone out, and I just came through with a little patience and Tom just made a nice throw and just played the play.”
This is a similar route combination to the first touchdown, but with more space for the receivers to run. Cooks draws the attention of the cornerback and the safety, while Rex Burkhead runs to the flat to draw the linebacker out of the passing lane. That leaves Gronkowski with outside leverage on the Dolphins linebacker and plenty of room to run.
Gronkowski will always separate from a linebacker with this type of distance to cover, so it would be up to the defending safety to make a decision: do you help cover Cooks or Gronkowski?
Cooks steps inside to get inside leverage on the cornerback because he knows he’s supposed to attack the safety in zone coverage. The safety can’t give up the middle of the field with Cooks heading his way with a step on the cornerback, so he has to hold his position and watch Gronkowski break outside with a linebacker simply hoping for an incompletion.
Chris Hogan could probably run a similar route, but Cooks is a far more dangerous player and makes the safety have to think harder about their choice- and that’s all the time that Brady needs to connect with Gronkowski.
And as a side note, imagine the Patriots running the same combination on the other side of the field with Hogan as the post player and Amendola as the out route. That would be hard to defend.
5-yard touchdown pass to Cooks
Brady motions Gronkowski across the formation to start the play and provide Cooks an extra blocker. Gronkowski chips the Dolphins edge defender #90 before kicking outside and clearing the Dolphins safety #20. Dwayne Allen clears the defensive back and that means that Cooks just has to be able to hit the edge faster than Dolphins linebacker #94 and that’s an easy victory for Cooks and the Patriots.
Gronkowski’s blocking ability clears the way for Cooks and his motion revealed how Miami’s defenders were looking at the New England skill players. By shifting the linebackers over and having the safety cover Gronkowski, it was clear that the linebackers weren’t watching Cooks in motion, giving him additional time to build up speed and catch the defenders off guard.
Cooks and Gronkowski are playing at a high level and they create an impossible decision for opposing defenses. Add in the emergence of Burkhead and Lewis, the consistency of Danny Amendola, the fact that Dwayne Allen is no longer a decoy, and the eventual return of Chris Hogan, and now the Patriots are able to trot out six or seven players that all demand attention.
And it seems that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady both understand how to utilize them to their full potential.