Finding passing lanes in the red zone can be like finding room to parallel park a pickup truck in the Boston suburbs. The windows of opportunity are small, and the margin for error is smaller. If you play it too wide, you’ll be making 20-point turns. Play it too narrow, you’ll graze a fender – or throw a pick-six.
The congestion only grows the closer to the city you get, just like it does the closer a quarterback gets his offense to the goal line.
And that’s where the 10 zone comes into play.
The New England Patriots’ passing game took its share of chances inside the opponent’s 10-yard line last season. Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett reared back to throw a combined 36 passes from there, and those passes sailed for 76 yards, 13 touchdowns and one interception from the opener on through the finale.
By then, it was Brady who owned the rights to each of those categories. It was the 39-year-old who accounted for all 20 of New England’s completions inside the 10-yard line.
Garoppolo and Brissett attempted four in all.
PASSING INSIDE THE 10
- Tom Brady: 20-of-32, 76 yards, 13 touchdowns, one interception
- Jacoby Brissett: 0-of-3
- Jimmy Garoppolo: 0-of-1
Brady’s 20 completions in that jurisdiction ranked fourth in the NFL despite his four-game absence, according to Pro Football Reference, after Andrew Luck, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. His completion percentage of 62.5 ranked second to only Rodgers among those who tossed at least 24 passes. And his 76 yards and 13 touchdowns from there ranked seventh and eighth.
As for whom Brady found through the moving cars, that’s where things get interesting.
Nine different route-runners made up Brady’s inside-the-10 targets in 2016. There was the fullback, two halfbacks, two tight ends and four wideouts in that allotment. And in terms of risk versus reward, it didn’t get much more reliable than two recipients who weren’t on the roster the year prior.
Martellus Bennett and Malcolm Mitchell.
Throwing to those two inside the 10 netted a completion percentage of 88. The results, though, proved to bring more than catches.
Bennett, now a member of the Green Bay Packers, reeled in four receptions on five targets from 10 yards or less during his only campaign in New England. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound veteran tight end walked away with 19 yards and four touchdowns, with two of those scores coming against the Cleveland Browns and the others against the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins. He also drew defensive pass interference on two occasions when Brissett was under center to face the Houston Texans, though neither flag counted towards his official inside-the-10 stat line.
Meanwhile, Mitchell caught all four passes sent his way in the inside-the-10 range. The fourth-round rookie out of Georgia turned the looks into 19 yards and three touchdowns. Two of those TDs transpired against the Jets and the third transpired against the Baltimore Ravens. Considering that the 5-foot-11, 200-pound wideout caught a total of four touchdowns altogether during his first campaign in Foxborough, it was a sizeable chunk.
It stood apart in comparison.
RECEIVING INSIDE THE 10
- Julian Edelman: 2-of-9, four yards, one touchdown
- Martellus Bennett: 4-of-5, 19 yards, four touchdowns
- Chris Hogan: 2-of-5, five yards, one interception
- Malcolm Mitchell: 4-of-4, 19 yards, three touchdowns
- Rob Gronkowski: 2-of-4, two yards, one touchdown
- James White: 2-of-3, 13 yards, two touchdowns
- Danny Amendola: 2-of-2, 14 yards, two touchdowns
- Dion Lewis: 1-of-1, zero yards
- James Develin: 1-of-1, zero yards
Bennett and Mitchell’s four inside-the-10 catches apiece placed them in a widespread tie for fifth in the league, per Pro Football Reference. Their 19 yards apiece placed them in a tie for 12th. Their four and three touchdowns, respectively, placed them in a tie for fourth and fifth.
Not bad at all. If anything, just unexpected.
Perhaps if Rob Gronkowski was healthy for a full 16-game slate, he would have been ahead of Bennett and Mitchell, or at least alongside the two inside-the-10 touchdowns of tailback James White and slot man Danny Amendola. But that did not come to fruition. The four-time first-team All-Pro managed a couple of catches – with one going for a two-yard touchdown – in six appearances before landing on injured reserve.
Missed time was not the issue in that respect for Julian Edelman. It was more so missed connections.
Edelman was the most heavily targeted Patriot in the red zone and also inside the 10 last season. The team’s all-around leader in receptions and receiving yards drew a total of nine passes down there. But while Edelman finished matched for fifth in the NFL in inside-the-10 targets, the eight-year pro also finished with as many catches as four of his teammates, including Gronkowski, for an efficiency of 22 percent.
Maybe that was partly on the quarterback. But by and large, the quarterback finished the regular season unscathed inside the 10.
Brady’s lone pick in that territory came on a fluttered ball intended for Chris Hogan in the back of the end zone versus Baltimore. Safety Eric Weddle served as the oncoming traffic that time.