Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Opinion: McDaniels distrust in a "Gronk"less offense the real red zone villian

"I'd say generally speaking, you're better off throwing closer to the goal line than farther away from it, to a point. Once you get inside the five yard line, then I'm not sure that that's true." - Bill Belichick

Not exactly a ringing endorsement from head coach Bill Belichick for the play calling in the red zone - and while he didn't come straight out and hang his offensive coordinator out to dry, he didn't go out of his way to advocate for him either.
A picture says a thousand words...

Those words from Belichick came after his New England Patriots failed to score twice inside the Miami five yard line, a perplexing trend that threatens to derail the Patriots' offense just when it was starting to find it's traction in time for the post-season - many in the media lamenting tight end Rob Gronkowski's season-ending injury last week against Cleveland as the beginning of the end of New England championship chances...

...telling a tale that suggests that Gronkowski makes the Patriots red zone offense efficient and effective all by his lonesome.

But while it is true that Gronkowski's presence certainly helped - how could it not? - the real effect of his injury is on offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' confidence level, his play calling vastly and negatively affected - and it reared it's ugly head once again after a seven game sabbatical to doom the Patriots' one and only shot at claiming the top seed in the conference with a disturbing loss to the Dolphins.

The New England Patriots' red zone execution issues are self-inflicted - and the man at the trigger, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, has it pointed right at the Patriots' collective foot.

No?  How else can one look at the play calling in the red area and not feel that there were eleven potential  game-winning points left on the turf at Sun Life Stadium in sweltering Miami, Florida on Sunday simply due to McDaniels abandoning his running game just when it made the most sense to make use of it?

LeGarrette Blount is a beast, dragging folks for needed yardage as observed several times in the past two weeks.  James Develin simply won't go down, Shane Vereen has shown his worth between the tackles and Stevan Ridley might be the most explosive back through the hole in the NFL - and they can't be trusted to pick up four yards in three tries?

The Patriots' offensive line may have some issues, but run blocking is not one of them. In fact, the Patriots running game was tearing off needed yardage just about every time quarterback Tom Brady needed them to do it, to the tune of 4.4 yards per carry - and all McDaniels has to remember is that his backs are not fast enough to try running wide, rather, these bruising backs want and need the ball inside the tackles....


The Patriots' opening drive was a thing of beauty, right until it was scoring time, then McDaniels froze.

Blount had carried five times for 25 yards on the drive, including picking up a tough 3rd and 1 from the Miami 12.  On the next play, Belichick's words held true as Brady found receiver Julian Edelman for six yards to the Dolphins four yard line...
Blount gets 8 yards on this 2nd & 10 call from the 10

...two incompletions later and Stephen Gostkowski was on the field to give New England a three point lead that could have been seven had McDaniels used his big backs to try to pick up the four yards.

On New England's first touchdown drive Belichick's words rang true yet again, Brady finding Michael Hoomananui with a back shoulder throw that "Hooman" one-handed for the sweet six point grab on a third and eight that would have been another field goal had he not - scoring from outside the 10 yard line.

The first possession of the third quarter, Blount carried three consecutive times, Brady then lofting a 30 yard strike to rookie Josh Boyce to get the Patriots in field goal range, but three straight incompletions doomed the promising drive to a failed 48 yard field goal attempt...

...this, coupled with McDaniels' curious decision to not give Brady a few shots down the field with 32 seconds and two time outs in his pocket at the end of the first half meant that instead of New England piggy-backing potential scores at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second, the Patriots came out with nothing on either.

Instead of giving Brady his shots - knowing that an "eternity", as defined by the NFL, is Tom Brady having the football with :32 left and two time outs remaining in the half - McDaniels had Brady hand the ball off twice to kill the clock - even calling a time out between the two runs - both accounting for Vereen's lone rushes on the day for 13 yards.

Just after the Dolphins had completed their comeback and taken a seven point lead on the first play of the fourth quarter, Brady and the offense again embarked on a long drive that ended in a field goal, Blount again getting a big gainer on second down to set up a 3rd and 2 from the Miami five yard line, but an incompletion forced a 4th and 2, ending another promising drive.
Edelman scores from the 24 yard line

The next drive the Patriots took the lead back with a touchdown drive, Edelman taking a short pass on an in-cut and weaving his way into the end zone, the impressive effort saving McDaniels from having to struggle with play calling in the red zone - problem is, the Patriots had to give the ball back to the Dolphins, having just a three point lead to protect and 4:14 left on the clock...

...putting the onus on the Patriots' defense to stop the Dolphins' clicking passing attack before they got into field goal range, which was made infinitely more difficult when Gostkowski shanked the ensuing kickoff out of bounds, giving Miami the ball at their 40 and just 25 yards to pick up to get into field goal range.

Because of McDaniels' distrust in his red zone offense and his subsequent skeptical play calling, the Patriots are doomed to score from outside of the 10 yard line without Gronkowski in the lineup, and the defense will continue to be put in bad spots if the offense can't run an efficient four-minute offense.

Consider that before Gronkowski returned to the lineup seven games into the season, the Patriots scored touchdowns on just five of their ten trips inside their opponents 10 yard line, four times through the air and just once on the ground - but in the seven games that he played, the Patriots were an astounding 17 of 19 in such situations, scoring on 10 runs and seven passes and settling for field goals just twice.

Sunday in Miami?  Zero for two.

Losing Gronkowski hurts, about that there is no doubt at all, but it's not as if the Patriots' don't have other legitimate weapons.  And in a game that was tight and with plenty of time to move the ball, having a ratio of 55 passing attempts to 22 runs is an abomination, particularly given the success the backs were having - and road-grading guard Logan Mankins said as much in eloquent and cryptic fashion following the game.

"I felt like we were always moving the ball until a certain point where then we wouldn't make any plays or we'd make a mistake that would kill the drive. So it was just one of those days where you get going and then either they'd stop you or you stopped yourself. I kind of felt like we were stopping ourselves today." - Mankins

McDaniels needs to trust that his players can get it done in the red zone like they get it done between the 20's - and until he does, this offense will not score enough points to win anything, let alone a title.

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