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An investigation into the Patriots’ struggles in the red zone: Part 1

How misleading is the narrative that the Patriots struggle in the red zone?

NFL: Carolina Panthers at New England Patriots Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Much has been made about the struggles of the Patriots in the red zone this year. Drives that seemed to go for touchdowns last year stall and the Patriots have to settle for field goals. And the raw numbers align with that notion. After scoring a TD on 64% of their red zone drives last year, the Patriots are scoring touchdowns just 50% of the time through 8 games in 2017. What is the issue?

Unlike some other fans and beat writers, I don’t see the Patriots’ red zone woes as an issue at all and share a somewhat similar opinion to fellow Pulpitter Evan Lazar, who had another great film breakdown earlier in the week. It is my opinion that Patriots will likely regress back to the mean the 2nd half of the year in the red zone and don’t need to make a single adjustment in terms of personnel, play calling or scheme.

The Patriots are 17/34 this year in the red zone. I will be breaking down the 3rd down failures (and some the relevant plays around them) of all 17 of them and categorizing the reasons (Brady, personnel, poor execution, offensive line, garbage time) that the Patriots failed to get 6.

Unlike Evan and other writers on this site, I’m not a capital J Journalist. I have almost no access to the all 22 film and the multiple angles that they get. I’m writing this article on a 2011 Macbook and the computers in the library at my college. To make it easier to display the points and conclusions of the play I’m going to be posting all of the relevant screenshots and the links to videos of the full plays below. Hopefully my conclusions can be understood through this type of media.

Week 1 vs. Chiefs

4th and 1 at KC 10

(9:49 - 1st) N.Solder reported in as eligible. M.Gillislee up the middle to KC 10 for no gain (A.Bailey, B.Logan).

Mike Gilleslee got stuffed on the 4th down play on the first of 2 4th down failures during the Patriots’ disappointing week 1 loss. But that’s actually not the play I want to highlight. The important play is the 3rd down play, where Brady missed a clear touchdown because he didn’t have chemistry with Cooks yet.

On this play, the Chiefs rush 4 and drop 7 into coverage. The Patriots have their standard 3rd down and long personnel on the field that we will see for almost all 3rd downs this season: White-Gronk-Cooks-Hogan-Amendola.

The first thing that stands out is that there is absolutely no pressure whatsoever. Brady has a perfect pocket and he all 5 of his eligible receivers out on pass routes. Brady immediately spots Amendola open out of the slot and he hits him for a 5 yard gain. Whether Amendola should have been more elusive after the catch is another issue, but lets investigate Brady’s decision to throw the ball his way.

At first glance at the photo above, Amendola appears to be the only one open. Logical decision right?

Wrong! Fast forwarding the play by less than a second shows that Cooks has absolutely undressed Phillip Gaines. He’s running a slant into the area of the field that was cleared out by Amendola’s crossing route and there’s no safety help because the deep safety has already targeted Amendola and the 10th defender that you can’t see on the screenshot is Marcus Peters who has Chris Hogan in man coverage.

If Brady waits half of a second longer and sees Cooks, it’s an easy 6 points. In almost every Patriots game, you’ll see Brady throw the ball to people before they’re even open. Gronk, Edelman, and Amendola have that trust. Brady’s trust for Cooks in the red zone (1 target through 8 games) needs to improve. This failed conversion is on Brady.

Link and time stamp: (26:31)

3rd and 1 at KC 8

(0:23 - 1st) (No Huddle, Shotgun) J.White up the middle to KC 8 for no gain (D.Johnson; R.Parker). measurement

I’m giving personnel and poor execution 50/50 responsibility for this failed conversion. The Patriots were running a hurry up, no huddle offense extensively week 1 to try to take advantage of superior conditioning. But that left the Patriots running James White up the middle out of the shotgun in short yardage here. That’s not a good idea at all.

However, I’m giving James White half the blame for this play. If you look at the blocking on the left edge, it’s perfect. Gronk and Solder are mauling their guys and Chris Hogan has sealed the safety to the inside. Terrence Mitchell, #39 on the Chiefs is running inside and has lost contain on the edge. If the running back was Dion Lewis or Rex Burkhead, I think they see that and cut it outside and walk into the end zone untouched. Instead, White runs it right into the teeth of a 9 man box and can’t fall forward to convert. As great of a 3rd down back White is, he still has very poor instincts when he’s not in space.

Link and time stamp: (2:09)

3rd and Goal at KC 10

(0:20 - 3rd) (Shotgun) T.Brady scrambles right tackle to KC 9 for 1 yard. T.Brady pass short left to J.White for 9 yards, TOUCHDOWN NULLIFIED by Penalty. PENALTY on NE-T.Brady, Illegal Forward Pass, 5 yards, enforced at KC 9.

This one is on the offensive line. You might not see it from the screencap, but this play is already over. Justin Houston has destroyed Marcus Cannon and it’s a goddamn miracle that Brady doesn’t get sacked here. With Brady running for his life and 7 defenders in coverage on a goal to go situation, there’s no chance for a conversion.

Link and time stamp: (40:48)

Total red zone conversion rate: 3/6

Week 2 vs. Saints

3rd and 9 at NO 17

(0:21 - 2nd) (Shotgun) T.Brady scrambles up the middle to NO 10 for 7 yards (P.Williams).

I’ve giving half blame to Brady and poor execution. This is because on 2nd and 9, Rob Gronkowski dropped this throw.

It’s a perfect throw and you almost never see the big guy drop those kind of layups.

And then on 3rd down, Brady didn’t see White getting open at the bottom of the screen and instead tried to scramble. TB12 was lucky that the Patriots’ special teams unit is so disciplined and was able to kick a FG in 15 seconds with no timeouts.

The 2nd picture shows White getting past Alex Anzalone, who had already given up TDs to Rex Burkhead and Gronk earlier in the day. Even if Brady doesn’t connect, that looks like at least illegal contact or holding. Even though Brady is scrambling, he never left the pocket.

Link and time stamps (Gronk drop 2:58) (3rd down 3:49)

3rd and 9 at NO 12

(1:14 - 3rd) T.Brady pass short left to C.Hogan to NO 6 for 6 yards (M.Lattimore). Pass -2, YAC 8

3rd and Goal at NO 5

(9:36 - 4th) (Shotgun) T.Brady sacked at NO 9 for -4 yards (A.Anzalone).

Punt late in the 4th

All 3 of these plays qualify as garbage time (99.9% win expectancy). They all made sense: the first was a safe underneath throw, the 2nd was a coverage sack, and the last one was a drive that entered the 20, left the 20 after penalties, and ended in a punt. Can’t blame the offense for garbage time play calls and decisions.

Total red zone conversion rate: 3/7

Week 3 vs. Texans

The Patriots had their best game in the red zone and went a perfect 2 for 2 in their exciting comeback win. Prayers up for Deshaun Watson on his recovery.

Week 4 vs. Panthers

3rd and 12 at CAR 17

(4:38 - 2nd) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass incomplete short left to C.Hogan.

The Patriots actually had a pretty good day in the red zone despite a disappointing loss to the Panthers, going 3/4 overall. However, they missed an opportunity to go 4/4, and that could have been the difference in the game where Graham Gano kicked a game winning field goal.

This screenshot is from the play before on 2nd and 12 where Brady threw behind an open Gronkowski at the goal line. On a right breaking seam route, Brady had Gronk open and was lucky that it wasn’t straight up intercepted.

On the ensuing 3rd and 12, the play was pretty much over before it began. The Panthers have 7 in coverage in their cover 2 zone and both tackles and Joe Thuney lose their matchups less than 2 seconds after the snap. Shaq Mason blocks nobody and Brady has to get rid of the ball in the form of a throwaway in Chris Hogan’s direction. The blame for this red zone failure is 50/50 Brady and the offensive line. (2nd down 16:41) (3rd down 17:19)

Total red zone conversion rate: 3/4

Next week I’ll break down weeks 5-8 (which most would say were a bigger red zone struggle than weeks 1-4) and make my final conclusion.

Weeks 1-4 red zone stats

Conversion rate: 11/19

Reasons for failures

Brady: 2

personnel: 0.5

poor execution: 1

offensive line: 1.5

garbage time: 3