September 28, 2016

Red Zone Futility

logoby Tyler Carter
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By now, certain miscues have been widely cited as reasons for the Patriots’ most recent defeat:

  • Gaffney’s dropped TD pass late in the 3rd quarter
  • Personal foul call on Dave Thomas
  • Belichick’s ill-fated challenge/questionable use of time outs

It’s possible that these events have blown out of proportion, however.  Gaffney was only thrown to twice, having been primarily used as a run-blocking WR (and doing a damn good job at it).  The author agrees with the PD editor that the flag on Thomas was a terrible call, and it was further compounded by a non-measurement following an apparent 1st down run by Benjarvus Green-Ellis (who from this point on shall be referred to as BGE).  As for Belichick’s allegedly reckless use of timeouts, the first was lost after someone upstairs (presumably his old buddy Ernie Adams, who he trusts implicitly) thought the 12 men on the field penalty call reversal was worth challenging, and the third was burned when New England thought they only had inches to go on 4th and 1 when the distance was actually closer to a full yard (everyone watching was treated to the soon-to-be-retired Bill Carollo’s adventures in ball spotting).

True, the Patriots would have converted had the timeout not been called, but the more pressing question is why they were afraid to go for it on 4th down in the first place.  After all, this is the same team that does so (roughly) between the opponents 40 and 30 yard line, an arbitrary/undefined region deemed too long for a field goal and/or too short for a punt.  So why not try it on a critical Red Zone possession?

New England’s offense had no trouble moving the ball between the 20s:

Rushing: 26 carries, 118 yards, 4.54 yards per carry

Passing: 21-28, 189 yards, 1 INT, 6.75 yards per attempt

Average gain: 5.69 yards per play

Once in the Red Zone however, their production plummeted:

Rushing: 6 carries, 22 yards, 1 TD, 3.67 yards per carry (does not include failed two-point conversion)

Passing: 5-7, 13 yards, 1.86 yards per attempt

Average gain: 2.69 yards per play

Try to put yourself in Belichick’s shoes.  Your team has run a total of thirteen Red Zone plays (spread over four possessions).  Nearly half (six or 46%) of those plays resulted in no gain or negative yardage.  It’s now 4th down early in the 4th quarter and your team is down by three on the road against your archrivals.  Should you fail to convert, said rivals are fully capable of ripping off another long scoring drive that would widen the deficit and kill the clock.  Wouldn’t you at least consider the safe choice of tying the score by going for the field goal?

But I digress.  This isn’t the first time this year the Patriots have struggled in the Red Zone; back in Week 6 the Chargers held the Patriots to a 33% Red Zone Efficiency.  Indianapolis did an even better job Sunday night, allowing New England just one touchdown on four Red Zone visits.  The passing game (1.86 yards per attempt?!) was particularly woeful in this area, and for this weeks Turning Point, we’ll break down the three consecutive (unsuccessful) passing plays that lead to the aforementioned consolation field goal.

As was the case much of the day, Indianapolis allowed Patriots room to operate underneath.  Cassel picked apart Dungy’s Tampa 2 zone variant with short passes (none went longer than 11 yards), with a few Faulk draws mixed in for good measure.  The Patriots operated out of their shotgun formation on 10 out of 15 (66%) of their plays during the drive.  Whereas this formation gave St. Louis and Denver fits however, the flexible, speedy Colt defense was more than capable of tightening up in a short field:

Situation: 1-10-IND 16 (12:57)

New England Formation: Shotgun 4 WR (Trips Right), BGE offset left

Personnel: WR 81 Moss, LT 72 Light, LG 70 Mankins, C 67 Koppen, RG 61 Neal, RT 77 Kaczur, WR/TE 86 Thomas, WR 83 Welker, WR/TE 84 Watson, QB 16 Cassel, RB 42 BGE

Indianapolis Formation: 4-3 Over

Personnel: DE 79 Brock, LDT 68 Foster, RDT 96 Dawson, RDE 93 Freeney, SLB 55 Session, MLB 58 Brackett, WLB 56 Hagler, LCB 23 Jennings, SS 21 Sanders, FS 41 Bethea, RCB 31 Ratliff

Play result: M.Cassel pass incomplete short left to BGE

Summary: Perhaps wary of another draw play (not out of the question facing two tight ends in this personnel grouping), the Colts countered with their base 4-3.  The Trips Right bunch included (outside to inside), Watson, Welker and Thomas; on the ensuing snap they ran a curl, a square in and a fade, respectively.  While Session initially appeared responsible for Welker, he and Brackett dropped back into zone coverage to take away the middle of the field, leaving BGE underneath as Cassel’s only option.  By the time he began his throw however, Brock had overpowered Kaczur to hurry the young quarterback into underthrowing his running back.

The author couldn’t determine why Mathis sat out on this play, but it didn’t seem to matter; the undersized Brock powered his way through Kaczur to help force the incomplete and put the Patriots in an obvious passing situation on 2nd and long:

Situation: 2-10-IND 16 (12:51)

New England Formation: Shotgun 4 WR (Trips Left), Faulk offset right

Substitutions: WR 10 Gaffney in for Thomas, RB 33 Faulk in for BGE

Indianapolis Formation: Nickel 4-2-5

Substitutions: DE 98 Mathis in for Foster, S 33 Bullitt in for Session

Play result: M.Cassel pass short right to W.Welker to IND 17 for -1 yards

Summary: Welker interrupted the Trips Left by going in motion left to right presnap; as he did so he was abandoned by Bethea and picked up by Sanders.  Also on the defensive side, Brock shifted back to LDT upon Mathis’ return.  Cassel faked the draw handoff to Faulk (freezing Brackett and Bethea) before quickly dumping the ball to Welker on a screen pass.  He was unable to go anywhere however, as Mathis (who recovered from Kaczur’s initial block), and Hagler (who sped past Neal) shared credit on the tackle for a loss.

While the WR screen worked well against a patchwork Denver unit and a St. Louis squad in prevent mode, the Colts have far too much speed on defense for this play to work.  Mathis’ terrific second effort wasn’t even needed, as Hagler was there to wrap up with Sanders closing in.  On the subsequent 3rd and long situation the Colts were allowed to tighten up even further by using their dime package:

Situation: 3-11-IND 17 (12:13)

New England Formation: Shotgun 3 WR, Moss slotted left, Faulk offset left

Substitutions: None

Indianapolis Formation: Dime 4-1-6

Substitutions: S 43 Giordano in for Hagler

Play result: M.Cassel pass short middle to W.Welker to IND 7 for 10 yards

Summary: On this shotgun variant Moss made a rare appearance as slot receiver while on the opposite side Welker went in motion from a wide to a tight position.  After the snap, Jennings dropped back to join Sanders and Giordano for a Cover 3 look, while Bullitt stayed over the top of Welker.  The latter was Cassel’s first and only read, and the QB hit him on a short slant pattern that came up just short (how short, only Bill Carollo knows).

While six defensive backs may seem like overkill when faced with only three wide receivers, the Colts were determined to not allow the Patriots to convert.  Mission accomplished.

Situation: 4-1-IND 7…

Never mind; too damned painful to relive!

Conclusions:

Bill Belichick said it best in his Monday afternoon press conference:

“We need to take better advantage of our scoring [chances].  Any one of those plays [in the red zone] would have made the difference in the game…It comes down to better execution.  It’s harder to throw down there…[and] it’s harder to run because there’s less space to defend.  We just have to do a better job of getting it in and we have to do a better job of keeping them out.”

Comments

  1. Down 3 pts. and 4th and 1 I have no problem with the decision to kick the fg. But the point is why were they down 3pts. Going for 2pts in the 3rd quarter was really the bonehead decision. You lose one pt. there and then the Colts go for 2 on their possession and that’s another lost pt. So instead of the score being 14-13 it’s now 15-12. At 14-13 you go for it on 4th down because, worse case scenario, you miss it and Colts go down score a TD and you’re still within 1 score and a 2pt conversion which you have kept in your pocket.

  2. Based on your observations, what do you think is the cause of the poor Red Zone efficiency? Is it the play calling? Cassel’s ineffectiveness? Run blocking? Poor route execution by the receivers? …

  3. TC, in my estimation the Patriots red zone woes against the Colts were due to two factors. The first was Indy’s terrific speed and tackling (across the board) on defense. Channeling my inner Madden, ‘they fly around and really know how to wrap up!’. It’s even more evident when they’re backed up to the goal line, as those Cover 2 safeties don’t have to play as deep and thus enjoy a reduced distance to the ball carrier/target. This leads into the second factor: the Patriots insistence on a balanced Red Zone attack (7 passes, 6 rushes). New England were far more effective running (3.7 yards per carry plus their lone TD) than throwing (1.9 yards per attempt) in the Red Zone, so using more big/jumbo sets (two or three TEs, two RBs) might have succeeded in overpowering Indy’s undersized front. The Pats decimated RB corps may have played into their play calling. After this week’s showing against Buffalo however, there should be no doubt as to what the Patriots have in Benny (if coach can get away with it, so can I!).

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