FOXBOROUGH — The 2018 NFL season has seen scoring take on new heights across the league.
The league average for points per game is at an all-time high of 24.2, and red zone efficiency is also on a record pace at nearly 60 percent (59.9), which would be the highest it has been since 2000 when they began tracking touchdown percentage in the red area.
As a result, despite a higher red zone efficiency than last season, the Patriots’ touchdown rate of 63.2 is down relative to the rest of the league as their NFL rank has dropped from fifth in 2017 to 13th this season.
But where the Patriots have really taken a step back this season is in goal-to-go efficiency, and that’s an area where they’ve declined relative to the Belichick era.
This season, the Patriots rank 27th in touchdown percentage in goal-to-go situations, and their touchdown rate of 68 percent is their second-worst output since 2001, only out-pacing the 2003 season (58.3).
Furthermore, the issues in the red zone have been exacerbated over the last four games.
The Patriots’ red zone efficiency has plummeted from 69.2 percent in the first seven games of the season to 50 percent over their last four contests.
And they’ve struggled mightily on third down in the red zone with their conversion rate falling from 68.4 to 27.3 over the last quarter of the season.
“That area of the field is always about execution and toughness, and we’ve had a few opportunities and just came up a little short on those, and certainly we stress that each week,” said Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels on Tuesday’s conference call.
“When we’re down there, at this time of the year, you have to make the most of every opportunity you have to score touchdowns. When we come away with field goals, you feel like it’s an empty trip sometimes.”
From this perspective, the Patriots’ issues in the red zone over the last month don’t stem from McDaniels’ play calling but instead struggles in execution by the players.
Below, we’ll go over some of those execution issues that explain why the Patriots were only one for three in the red zone in New York:
JAMES WHITE’S DECLINE
One of the Patriots’ best weapons in the red zone during the first half of the season was running back James White.
White’s six receiving touchdowns in the red zone over that span paced the league, but he has been shutout through the air in the red area over the last four games, and it’s not due to a lack of effort.
In fact, White’s touches and targets in the red area have increased over the last four games.
As the chart above shows, it’s White’s catch rate and efficiency with the ball in his hands that has taken a significant step back, but he’s not to blame in some cases.
On this play, the Patriots have a pick play on for White who runs out of the backfield and into the flat. However, Julian Edelman ends up picking the wrong Jet defender, and the linebacker on White in man coverage closes quickly to shut down the play. The throw from Brady wasn’t great either, but even if it’s on target, White isn’t going anywhere after the catch.
Here’s an example of a similar play from Week 4 against the Dolphins. As you can see, Dorsett picks the correct linebacker and White converts on third down.
PASS PROTECTION ISSUES
When the Patriots struggle in the red zone, pass protection has been a significant reason why in recent weeks.
On Sunday, many were quick to blame McDaniels for calling back-to-back fades to tight end Rob Gronkowski on the Patriots’ first red zone drive.
However, the second of those targets for Gronk came as a result of a breakdown in protection, not because the play was necessarily designed to toss up a fade to the tight end again.
And as Belichick always says, the Patriots don’t design passing plays for only one receiver unless its a screen.
The Patriots are in an empty set with fullback James Develin and running back James White flexed outside. The Jets end up bringing pressure to Brady’s right, so the Pats quarterback goes to the one-on-one matchup. At the top of the screen, you’ll see the Patriots have a slant-flat combination on with White and Josh Gordon, and Gordon is open on the slant. If Brady had more time, my educated guess is that he would’ve hit Gordon here. It’s difficult to assess blame without knowing the call, but the Jets only bring four rushers, so Brady either failed to set the protection, or someone on the offensive line didn’t do their job.
Either way, this is another example of execution on the field leading to a failed play in the red zone.
ROUTE RUNNING ISSUES
On the Patriots’ second red zone drive on Sunday, the Pats failed to convert a third down play from the Jets 14-yard line that once again highlights my concerns with execution.
Spacing is critical in all areas of the field, but especially when the field shrinks inside the 20.
Here, the Patriots send Edelman on an option route from the slot and Hogan runs across the back of the end zone on a dig route. However, Hogan stops his route, and he ends up in the same area of the field as Edelman, something that isn’t by design. Brady even tries to look off Jets safety Jamal Adams who is sitting in the middle of the field to allow Hogan to sit in the vacated area. Brady is protected well and ends up almost completing a pass to Gronk on a wheel route. Gronk stacks the linebacker and is open on the play, but this is a difficult “drop it in the bucket” type throw for Brady who at that point was unable to set his feet in the pocket.
Again, this isn’t about coaching or play design; it’s about the players doing the right thing.
GOAL LINE CARRIES
Finally, the Patriots have struggled all season running the football in goal-to-go situations.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick would tell you that running the ball inside the ten is crucial because the passing lanes are so small, but his team ranks 28th this season in rushing success in goal-to-go scenarios (40 percent).
“Short-yardage and goal line, there’s not a lot of mystery in some of those things,” said McDaniels. “You’ve got to leverage, you want to play – the lower man usually wins in our game – and try to get some movement on the line of scrimmage.”
Although the Patriots eventually punched it in, it took three tries for them to run the football into the end zone from the Jets one-yard line on their lone red zone scoring drive.
As McDaniels said, you need to get low and generate movement on the line of scrimmage, and the Patriots were unable to do that against the Jets goal line defense.
On this run, the Patriots call a stretch off-tackle run and Jets defensive tackle Nathan Shepard blows up a double-team from Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon pushing the duo into the backfield. Gronk then ends up on the ground trying to reach his block which causes Cannon to lose his footing, and Michel has no place to go. Plus, center David Andrews fails to cut down the one-tech in the middle of the line, so there isn’t a cut back lane for Michel either. As you can see, there’s no forward momentum from the offensive line.
Even when Michel finally did get into the end zone, Mason gets blown backward again, and it’s tough sledding for the Pats running back who has to power his way in for the score.
These are difficult situations to run the football with the defense loading up on the line of scrimmage and expecting run, but the Patriots need to do a better job up front of creating a hole for the ball carrier.
And out of all the things we’ve gone over here, the stretch handoff is the one questionable play call; we’d all like to see the Patriots try some runs up the gut in short yardage situations rather than going off-tackle.
When the offense fails to execute in a critical aspect of the game such as the red zone, it’s easy to blame the play caller.
It’s a results-based business, but when a play fails, many are quick to blame the coach with the play sheet on the sideline rather than the 11 players on the field.
As it turns out, you can have an awful play call that makes McDaniels look like a genius because the players execute at a high-level and the reverse is true when the operation doesn’t go as planned.
Ultimately, McDaniels has to shoulder some of the blame when the offense doesn’t produce up to its potential, whether it’s play calling or execution.
But the Patriots’ red zone calls and designs aren’t the issue, and if we see improved execution against the Vikings, who statistically, have the best red zone defense in the NFL, then we’ll see them start scoring at a higher rate.
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