August 29, 2014

First and Goal and Gone

logoby Tyler Carter
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We’re about to enter Week 7 of the NFL.  The trade deadline has passed, players on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list start to return, so by this point you generally have a good idea of what your team will look like going forward.

And New England fans, unless this group of guys turn things around, 2008 will be worst statistical season since Belichick took over in 2000.

First, a few numbers.  This table (all statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com) compares the scoring offenses, scoring defenses and point differentials (and their associated league-wide rankings) along with how the Patriots finished for the first eight years of Bill Belichick’s tenure.

Season

PPG Scored

Rank

PPG Allowed

Rank

Differential

Rank

Result

2000

17.3

25th

21.1

17th

-3.9

23rd

5-11; 5th in AFC East

2001

23.2

6th

17.0

6th

6.2

7th

11-5; Won Super Bowl

2002

23.8

10th

21.6

17th

2.2

14th

9-7; Tied 1st in AFC East

2003

21.8

12th

14.9

1st

6.9

6th

14-2; Won Super Bowl

2004

27.3

4th

16.3

2nd

11.1

1st

14-2; Won Super Bowl

2005

23.7

10th

21.1

17th

2.6

14th

10-6; Lost Div. Round

2006

24.1

7th

14.8

2nd

9.3

4th

12-4; Lost AFC Champ.

2007

36.8

1st

17.1

4th

19.7

1st

Lost Super Bowl

The scoring averages themselves are raw numbers that don’t mean a whole lot by themselves.  By contrast, the league rankings and point differentials are relative statistics that indicate how the Patriots stacked up against their opponents.  Some things jump out at you:

The Patriots have only thrice ranked outside the top 10 in scoring defense (2000, 2002, and 2005)

For anyone requiring a refresher of the pre-2000 Pete Carroll/Bobby Grier botchjob, I highly recommend both Chris Price’s ‘The Blueprint‘ and Michael Holley’s ‘Patriot Reign‘.

Coming off their worst-to-first championship season, the 2002 Patriots faced a much tougher schedule and fielded a slow, aging defensive roster (Bobby Hamilton and Anthony Pleasant on the defensive line, O-T-I-S, Terrell Buckley and Victor Green in the secondary).

In 2005, New England’s defense dealt with turnover in both the coaching ranks (RAC leaving for Cleveland elevated Mangina to Defensive Coordinator) as well as the roster (Ty Law’s departure, Ted Johnson’s retirement, the failed Monty Beisel/Chad Brown experiment) as well as injuries (Bruschi’s stroke, Seymour).

Despite these defensive setbacks, however, in 2002 and 2005 the Patriots boasted top 10 scoring offenses which helped propel them to 1st place AFC East finishes.

The Patriots have only twice finished outside the top 10 in scoring offense (2000 and 2003)

Again, 2000 needs no explanation.

In 2003 the Patriot offense didn’t finish too far outside the top 10 but were criticized for their inability to run the ball consistently: an aging Antoine Smith split carries with Kevin Faulk, while Fred McCrary went down with injury, depriving the team of a true blocking fullback (Larry Centers and Patrick Pass were primarily used as receivers).

As the offense did in 2002 and 2005 however, the 2003 Patriot ‘Homeland Defense’ (coined by nose tackle Ted Washington) rose to the occasion, leading the league in scoring defense and setting NFL records for home shutouts (three) and points allowed at home (in a 16 game season).

This suggests that in seasons when one unit of the team ‘struggled’ (arbitrarily defined as finishing outside the top-10 in scoring), the other unit compensated.  Even when the team finished middle of the pack in terms of point differential (14th in 2002 and 2005), they still managed 1st place seasons.

Which brings us to the 2008 season.  For the first time since Belichick’s first season, the Patriots are on pace to finish outside the top 10 in both scoring offense and scoring defense.

Season

PPG Scored

Rank

PPG Allowed

Rank

Differential

Rank

Result

2000

17.3

25th

21.1

17th

-3.9

23rd

5-11; 5th in AFC East

2008

17.8

25th

21.8

11th

-4.0

24th

?

Yowza.

While the defense started 2008 off strong, averaging 10 PPG against Kansas City and the NYJ, they’ve since surrendered 89 combined points to Miami, San Francisco and Miami.  Even still, this unit just barely ranks outside the top 10 in scoring defense.

The offense, however, has been inconsistent all year.  They’ve topped 20 points only once (Week 5 against San Francisco) and have scored just 8 touchdowns in 5 games.  It’s not as if they can’t move the ball; despite their ranking 21st in total yardage, they’ve been able to drive into the opponent’s Red Zone on 15 separate occasions.  Unfortunately, they’ve only come away with touchdowns on 7 of those attempts (an unacceptable 47% efficiency).

This problem was magnified in the most recent contest at San Diego.  On their opening drive of the 3rd quarter, New England moved the ball 77 yards in 8 plays, capped off by a tough, spirited Sammy Morris catch-and-run to set up first and goal at the 1.  A Patriot touchdown would have cut the Chargers lead to a touchdown and possibly altered the complexion of the game.  Despite four consecutive attempts, however, the Patriots turned the ball over on downs, resulting in this week’s The Turning Point.

Let’s break down how the Patriots failed to score:

Situation: 1-1-SD 1 (10:04)

New England Formation: Goal Line, Thomas H-back right, Evans offset right

Personnel: TE 50 Vrabel, LT 72 Light, LG 70 Mankins, C 67 Koppen, RG 74 Yates, RT 64 LeVoir, TE 84 Watson, TE/H-Back 86 Thomas, QB 16 Cassel, FB 44 Evans, RB 34 Morris

San Diego Formation: Goal Line

Personnel: DE 93 Castillo, DT 97 Bingham, DT 76 Williams, DE 99 Olshansky, OLB 95 Phillips, SS 42 Hart, ILB 51 Dobbins, ILB 59 Siler, ILB 54 Cooper, LCB 23 Jammer, FS 32 Weddle

Play result: M.Cassel pass incomplete short left

Summary: San Diego countered New England’s 3 TE, 2 RB set with 4 lineman and 4 linebackers.  Hart and Phillips lined up opposite Thomas (the H-back) and Vrabel, respectively.  Evans slammed off tackle with Morris leaping behind while the Chargers plugged their gaps…but it was play action!  Following his initial chip on Phillips, Vrabel released into the flat, but the former stood directly in between him and his quarterback.  With both Phillips and Castillo closing in, and no other option to throw to, Cassel wisely threw the ball to the end zone cameramen.

The Patriots went with, what had historically been for them a highly successful play call.  As many of you are aware, each of Mike Vrabel’s ten career receptions have gone for touchdowns, and all of them have come as a goal line TE.  For an offense struggling to consistently score points, this wasn’t a bad one to call, especially given it’s success rate.  And for the most part it was executed well; EVERYONE on San Diego bit, including the three ILBs (Dobbins, Siler and Cooper…terrific football names BTW).  A bit of bad luck as Phillips was right in Cassel’s passing lane and even leaped to so as to deflect any potential lob/touch pass.

Situation: 2-1-SD 1 (9:58)

New England Formation: Ditto

Personnel: Ditto

San Diego Formation: Ditto

Personnel: Ditto

Play result: S.Morris right tackle to SD 1 for no gain

Summary: No, I haven’t been watching reruns of Ghost, the personnel groupings and lineups were exactly the same.  So too was how the action unfolded: imagine that Cassel had actually handed off to Morris on the previous play.  Now picture Williams shoving Koppen two yards into the backfield to impede Morris’ progress.  Tripped up by his own center, the beleaguered halfback could do nothing but fall forward for no gain.

Since Koppen struggled against Williams all day, wouldn’t it have been prudent to give him some help, especially on a run call on a critical goal line situation?  Since the play was designed to run off right tackle, Yates assisted LeVoir with a double-team of Bingham by design.  That leaves Mankins, who was matched up on Olshansky much of the day.  If the Patriots slid the left half of their protection right, this play might have stood a better chance or succeeding.

Situation: 3-1-SD 1 (9:19)

New England Formation: Goal Line, Thomas H-back left, Evans offset left

Personnel: same

San Diego Formation: same

Personnel: same

Play result: M.Cassel pass incomplete short middle to S.Morris

Summary: Pre-snap activity on the play: Thomas went in motion left-to-right followed by Morris splitting out left, with the Charger’s ILBs and DBs barely budging in response.  On the ensuing snap, Morris, Vrabel and Evans ran pass patterns (a curl, a fade and a flat, respectively).  Cassel took a three step drop before firing a pass to Morris, but it was too low and behind for the running back to make a play.

Vrabel took Cooper with him to the back of the end zone while Weddle covered Evans.  This call was intended for Morris from the getgo; after crossing with Vrabel he had a window of opportunity against the nearest defender (Cooper) a few yards away.  Cassel wasn’t particularly pressured (although Phillips managed a decent angle against Light), but appeared to rush his throw, and it landed incomplete to bring up 4th down.

Situation: 4-1-SD 1 (10:04)

New England Formation: Goal Line, Thomas H-back right, Evans offset right

Personnel: same

San Diego Formation: Goal Line

Personnel: same

Play result: M.Cassel sacked at SD 2 for -1 yards

Summary: After sniffing out this play action, six Charger defenders dropped into coverage.  The offensive line provided more than enough pass protection, but after a quick scan Cassel decided to pull the ball down and run with it.  After clumsily tripping over Yates (entangled on the ground with Bingham), San Diego swarmed in to force a Patriot turnover on downs

Cassel insisted he went through his reads and didn’t see Watson come open, but he didn’t even appear to look in the latter’s direction until he started scrambling.  Even then, he still had time and room to get a pass off.  Bottom line, he was either too impatient or too emboldened by his ability to run the football, and it cost his team a touchdown.

Conclusions:

While New England has had plenty of Red Zone opportunities, it has failed to convert on the majority of the time.  On this occasion they had first and goal at the 1, and as Al Michaels pointed out this was the first time since 2003 they failed to score.  While 3 pass attempts (two off play action) during this sequence were tough to fathom from a fans perspective, its understandable that the Patriots would want to give their passing offense a chance to succeed under these circumstances.  Whatever areas the Patriots feel they need to shore up, they had better do so quickly, otherwise they’re headed for a disappointing 2008 finish.

Comments

  1. From my inexperienced eye I can’t tell if Cassel has any talent or not. What I do see is that the game seems to speed up in his brain and he can’t slow things down. So even if he does go through his reads they’re much too rapid and he is unable to make good and timely decisions. I think they need to do what the old Colts did when they got stuck with Tom Matte at Qb. Go with 2 or 3 tight ends. Be creative in the running game. Maybe even single wing stuff. And use only one wideout. This will make his reads real simple.

  2. blitzkrieg81 says:

    Cassel is just working out the kinks….the pats are gonna come back once again….and Moss is just gonna destroy the competition like he usually does….Check out his ad! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wo9yprCFKJA …there are no words to describe it just check it out…

  3. Matt’s QB rating 78.1 and Rivers’ QB rating 109.4 were on display last game.
    Switching NFL MVP QB to below average QB is very painful. (according to QB rating at NFL.com)

    Forget the running game. It does not win games. Pats need to work on passing game, more yardage per attempt, more points on the board.

    As a lost season, I hope Pats let Matt sling it and let the best wide receivers in NFL do some work. Even if it’s double coverage, throw it to Moss. It’s a lot better than Cassel getting sucked time after time. (He is 2nd in sucks in NFL. Who can forget the deer in the headlight look on his face on the sideline after the SD goalline stand.)
    If Matt improves the passing game, we have some hope, otherwise, Pats will be crashed by better passing teams, even if they can get to the playoff which may not happen this year, with 4-1 Buffalo, improved Miami and Favre Jets.

    If the D does not step up, this year, we’d be 7-9 season if lucky, despite the softest schedule in NFL.
    Fasten seat belt folks, Indy and Pits gonna crash Pats this year. We are doomed.

  4. Forgetting the running game and focusing entirely on the pass has made them a soft, finesse team that will get its ass kicked more and more. How anybody could have watched that Super Bowl last year and still call for MORE passing now is beyond me.

  5. Didn’t intend to be a doomsayer; this projection was meant as more of a wake up call. Obviously the Patriots can’t continue to settle for field goals or worse (especially inside the Red Zone) and expect to win most of the time. Not with the defense giving up points at this clip. Fortunately the mistakes on that failed goal line opportunity seem correctable: I counted one instance of bad luck, 2 cases of poor execution (Koppen on the run call, Cassel on the incomplete pass to Morris) and one poor decision (Cassel pulling the ball down). The Red Zone is one of the drills Belichick refers to when he mentions situational work/fundamentals, so we can only hope that over the final 11 weeks of practice/games remaining that the Patriot offense can improve on that ugly 47% conversion rate.

    On a completely unrelated note, I’m headed to the game Monday night but can’t leave Lowell for Foxboro until ~4:30. Any tips/suggestions?

  6. > How anybody could have watched that Super
    > Bowl last year and still call for MORE passing
    > now is beyond me.

    Because Brady had 7.79Yard/Attempt last year (the best in the league), and 16-0 in regular season while we now have 5.29Yd/A, 24th in the league and 3-2.

    This year, the Pats rushing game is 3.8Yd/A. Last year, 4.1Yd/A.

    Anyone in the right mind thinks that Pats’ running game is not going to cut it. When you cannot punch in 2yd from the goal line because the center is pushed backward 2 yard from the scrimmage, you cannot count on the running game.
    You saw it on the last Sunday.

    Last Giants [14]/Browns [35] game, Giants had 7.2Yd/A running game, the monster number, and lost to Browns. (Giants has 6.1Yd/A running game so far.)
    Because, Anderson had 10.7Yd/pass attempt and Eli had 7Yd/pass.
    In NFL, passing game produces points, and the running game exists so that you can control the clock.
    Check out the stats, and you’ll find that the better passing team almost always wins regardless of running game.

    We all hope Cassel wakes up in better mood, and start making plays. We have a great set of receivers (including TEs) that letting them not participate is a real waste.

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