Patriots

Look no further than the red zone as to why the Patriots can't score

Look no further than the red zone as to why the Patriots can't score

FOXBORO — The Patriots are so infected by offensive issues right now that it's hard to pinpoint one and say it's the reason they've scored more than 20 points only once since Halloween.

But one area — one situation — stands out, because their struggles there are so glaringly obvious by the numbers. It's where the scoring happens: the red zone.

The Patriots went 1-for-3 on their red zone scoring chances against the Chiefs in Week 14, dropping their success rate in those situations to 48.08 percent for the season. That's 27th in the NFL, and places them behind teams like the Dolphins (16th), Bears (12th) and Bills (10th). It's also a significant drop-off from where they were just a year ago when they scored touchdowns on 62.86 percent of their red zone trips.

The one red zone score the Patriots had in last weekend's loss to Kansas City came on a 10-yard jet-sweep run with running back Brandon Bolden aligned as a slot receiver. 

"It was nice to run it in there with Brandon Bolden," Tom Brady told WEEI's Greg Hill Show this week. "It's always nice when you can run it in. It's a lot easier than trying to squeeze it into those tight coverages in the red area."

The numbers would bear that out. 

According to Sharp Football Stats, NFL teams have a 41 percent success rate collectively in the red zone when throwing this year. Their success rate when running in the red zone is 47 percent. From the 10-yard line and in, teams have a collective success rate of 48 percent passing. Their success rate from 10 yards and in when running the football is 52 percent. 

Yet the Patriots — among the worst red-zone offenses in football this year — have frequently thrown the football more and more as they've gotten closer to the goal line.

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On the season, they have 94 pass attempts inside the red zone versus 71 rush attempts. That's the most red zone pass attempts in football by a wide margin. (The Saints are next with 80.) But as the season has gone on, the run-pass contrast has become even more stark. 

Over their last five games, going back to their loss in Baltimore, the Patriots have passed 39 times in the red zone (most in the NFL) compared to 19 rush attempts. When they've been inside the 10-yard line, they've passed 15 times compared to eight rush attempts. Inside the five, they've passed 13 times compared to three rush attempts. 

"It's always best if you can hand the ball off and run it in," Bill Belichick told WEEI's Ordway, Merloni and Fauria Show last week. "It's harder to throw down there just based on the number of players they have on defense and the amount of space you have to throw on offense. Everything is a lot tighter. 

"But the running game is tighter too because the secondary is closer to the line of scrimmage and safeties are like added linebackers so it's harder to get a hat on everybody. But the easiest thing to do is to hand the ball off and run it in if you can do that. That's always preferable than trying to throw it into a tight space with more defenders. But if they bring enough people up there or you're too close to the goal line and you have unblocked players then that's not really the answer either."

On this topic, everyone seems to agree. Running the football down close to the goal line is the most efficient way to do things. Even the advanced statistics — which often highlight the efficiency of NFL passing games — suggest that running effectively in the red zone and at the goal line is particularly valuable. According to this offseason piece by FiveThirtyEight.com's Josh Hermsmeyer, league-wide completion percentage drops about nine points from an opponent's 20-yard line to its three-yard line, making the ability to run down there critical.

So why have the Patriots bailed on their running game when down in close? 

Their running game, in general, has struggled for much of the season and they currently rank 29th in yards per carry (3.5). That's one reason. But opposing defenses have also, at times, sold out to stop them on the ground in the red zone — probably because they like their chances to stop the Patriots' passing-game weapons.

Last week Josh McDaniels pointed to a play against the Texans when the Patriots had a first-and-goal situation at the seven-yard line. Against an eight-man box for Houston, Sony Michel took a handoff and was tackled near the line of scrimmage by a safety. Brady's next two passes went incomplete and the Patriots kicked a field goal. 

"[The safety] was in the backfield, and that's the way we were getting played, quite honestly," McDaniels said. "Down there against them — and a few other teams the last so many weeks here — they're trying to make it difficult, trying to force you to do something, be one-dimensional . . . 

"Our goal is to always try to be as efficient as we can be and do the thing that gives us the best chance to have success. I certainly am not opposed to being more run than pass, or more pass than run, if it's going to be successful for our team. I've got to do a better job at trying to find the right answers each week and put our guys in the right position and hope that we can go out there and execute well and get it in the end zone each time we're down there."

Last week against the Chiefs, the Patriots ran it successfully twice on their first two red-zone snaps. After a blocked punt, James White carried for nine yards to get the Patriots to the Chiefs 10-yard line. Then Bolden took it around the edge to score. Perhaps that was an indication of where McDaniels was hoping to go with his red zone attack. 

On their next trip, it appeared as though the Patriots scored on a play that — as CBS color analyst Tony Romo pointed out — could be classified as a type of run play even though it was a short pass. Brady found N'Keal Harry going in motion for a very shallow under route, and Harry took it into the end zone after a couple of broken tackles. He simply wasn't deemed by the officials to have scored.

Three outside runs in the red zone. Three successful plays. Maybe there's something to work with there moving forward.

The Patriots had three more chances to punch it in after that officiating gaffe, remember. They ran for a loss of two after rushing to the line because they thought they'd scored on the Harry play. On second down, Brady threw to Jakobi Meyers, who dropped it. (Another red zone touchdown off the board.) On third down, Brady was sacked. 

On both dropbacks, both Julian Edelman and James White were doubled. On both dropbacks, the Chiefs started the down with what looked like well-populated fronts that might've discouraged run plays. Unable to run and unable to pass to their top options, the Patriots stalled deep in opponent territory. 

Later in the game, on the final Patriots drive, they ran another pass-but-really-run play when White took an end-around pitch. He was tackled for a loss of two by an unblocked Chris Jones. Three passes followed, finishing with an incompletion to Edelman from the three-yard line that ended the game. 

There's no easy fix to what ails the Patriots in the red zone right now. It's not as simple as more rush attempts and fewer passes. Defenses can dictate how things will go to an extent. McDaniels isn't going to ask his players to run head-first into a wall at the line of scrimmage simply because the numbers say it's better to run. But passing hasn't worked either.

Will the Patriots continue to go to the air and hope that a third option — a healthier Mohamed Sanu or Meyers or Harry, perhaps? — can emerge outside of Edelman and White? Or will they scrap the passing attack because it has them near the bottom of the league in red zone offense, and try to grind out touchdowns against imposing fronts instead? 

Facing a long list of issues right now, executing key four-point plays — finding the edge that will lead to touchdowns over field goals — has to be at or near the top of the to-do list for McDaniels and his offense.

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Revisiting the 'enlightening' lesson Kobe Bryant taught Bill Belichick, Patriots

Revisiting the 'enlightening' lesson Kobe Bryant taught Bill Belichick, Patriots

In a statement Tuesday, Bill Belichick said he had "never witnessed a group as captivated" as the New England Patriots when Kobe Bryant spoke to the team in May 2018.

Belichick wasn't just paying lip service.

On Tuesday, NFL Films resurfaced a clip from HBO's "The Art of Coaching" documentary about Belichick and Alabama head coach Nick Saban in which both coaching legends reflected on their interactions with Bryant.

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These comments came in March 2019, more than 10 months before Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others were tragically killed Sunday in a helicopter crash.

Here's what Belichick had to say at the time about Bryant's message to the Patriots:

Another thing he said to us, which was an awesome message, was, "When I was 25 (years old), I could go out and score 30 (points). When I was 35, 38, I could score 30, but it wasn't the same way. I had to learn how to play without the ball. I had to learn how to play in less space. I had to learn how to use picks differently. I couldn't just drive to the basket like I could in my younger days. I could still score, but I had to change my game."

That was so enlightening for all our players that heard that. Because you're sitting there looking at his career and then we're all thinking about ours. It's changed for me just like it's changed for the players.

Belichick is a student of football. He has won six Super Bowl titles over 20 years in New England by constantly adapting, changing his approach as a head coach and general manager to stay ahead of the game's shifting trends.

Belichick clearly saw the same trait in Bryant, who averaged 22.3 points per game at age 36 (after tearing his Achilles tendon) by altering his style of play after hours of study and practice. The 42-year-old Tom Brady obviously took Bryant's message to heart, as well.

Bryant is gone much too soon at age 41, but the impact he had on players and coaches of all sports will live on.

How Jimmy Garoppolo won his 49ers teammates over soon after Patriots trade: 'It was sick'

How Jimmy Garoppolo won his 49ers teammates over soon after Patriots trade: 'It was sick'

MIAMI -- George Kittle was dressed as a pirate. It was the day before Halloween of his rookie season. He was going to celebrate the holiday as any 24-year-old would. Then, as any 24-year-old would, he peeked down at his phone to check on a notification.

Jimmy Garoppolo had been traded by the Patriots to Kittle's 49ers. He had a new quarterback.

"I said, 'Wow, that's really interesting.' It was cool," Kittle remembered. "Jimmy G. Two Super Bowls. Hell of a leader. It's fun to have someone like that."

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Kittle and other Niners this week remembered the deal that sent Garoppolo to San Francisco and in the process changed the course of the franchise. They couldn't have known exactly what they had then. Garoppolo had only two NFL starts to his name. But now, sitting in front of microphones in Miami in the days leading up to Super Bowl LIV, they couldn't believe their good fortune that Garoppolo landed in their laps. 

The hints that they had something in Garoppolo came early. 

"Honestly, it sounds cliche but it's real, it was at the first practice," said fullback Kyle Juszczyk. "He ran the scout team the first day. And that first period he absolutely diced our defense. You could see it in his footwork, his mechanics, the confidence that he emitted. You could see that this guy was the real deal."

For Kittle, the sign came loud and clear that his offense had a new leader. It came before Garoppolo even made his first throw from under center. 

"It was funny, his first play under center, he has a really good cadence," Kittle said, referring to the quarterback's calls at the line of scrimmage. "He has a good voice for it. Right after he said, 'Hut! Hut! Hike!' for the first time, everyone was like, 'Whoa! Nice!' It was sick."  

"Very authoritative," offensive tackle Joe Staley said of Garoppolo's line-of-scrimmage vocals. The 13-year veteran smiled and added, "He's commanding. Lets you know he's there."

It came together quickly for Garoppolo in his second professional stop. He started five games after being traded, winning all five, and completing 67.4 percent of his passes at a clip of 8.8 yards per attempt. 

He tore his ACL after three games the following season, but rediscovered his 2017 form this season. The Niners went 13-3 with Garoppolo taking the snaps. He completed 69.1 percent of his throws (fourth in the NFL), threw 27 touchdown passes (sixth), and put up an 8.4 yards per attempt figure (third). 

"I didn't really know much, actually," Staley said of Garoppolo's days in New England. "I remember the one game he had in Arizona where he started and did really, really well. But didn't know much. Didn't have much of a reaction [to the trade] either way. Knew everyone was really high on him. 

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"Then he came in here and he really blew me away. In the huddle. All the little nuances of being a quarterback. The command that he had. His quick release. You could definitely tell that he was trained in that Patriots system as far as getting rid of the ball fast, which is awesome for an offensive lineman. He's continued to grow and develop since he's been here. It's been awesome to see him get to this point."

The Niners are back in the Super Bowl after a 4-12 record last season. Back in the Super Bowl with a chance to win one for the first time since January 1995. And thanks in part to Tom Brady continuing to play at an MVP level the season Garoppolo was dealt, thanks to the Patriots holding onto Garoppolo until midseason that year, all it cost the Niners to change everything was a second-round pick.

"I think," Juszczyk said, "we got him for a bargain."