Tom Brady stepped up his game in the second half of Sunday’s win over the Colts. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
The Patriots may have found the true key to maintaining success down the stretch, at least offensively.
The Patriots scored touchdowns in all five chances Sunday night in the red zone. The key, according to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, was the genuine threat of either a pass or run.
As a matter of fact, the first five touchdowns the Patriots scored were the result of red zone execution. Instead of settling for field goals, which Tom Brady had mentioned in previous weeks as a problem, the Patriots were able to run it into the end zone four times behind the power attack of Jonas Gray.
Brady also converted a two-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tim Wright to cap an 80-yard drive that opened the second half scoring.
“In order to be good in the red zone, I think you have to maintain the ability to be balanced, two-dimensional down there,” McDaniels said in a conference call Tuesday. “If you ever get into the red zone and become all pass or all run, then generally a defense kind of either packs it in in the running game or tries to double cover certain people in the passing game, and there is obviously less space to throw it in, and there are usually more people near the line of scrimmage the lower you get in the red zone [and] the closer you get to the goal line.
“I thought that we were effective running the ball in the red zone the other night. A lot of people did a lot of good things. It’s tough when you get down there because there is not a lot of space, like I said, and you’ve got to get either receivers in there blocking tight, or your backs are going to have to break a tackle or run through an extra defender some times, and I thought that Jonas did a good job of doing that. We were fortunate to be able to run the ball in I believe four times the other night. Running the ball is not an easy thing, but I think the guys did a good job of trying to get a hat on those guys, and like I said, Jonas ran well.”
There’s a reason teams prefer running it into the end zone: space. It’s much harder to pass for a score, especially when you’re inside the 10. When you can run, and run effectively, teams actually have to consider you might just line up and give it to the back three times in a row.
“When you throw it down there, there is never much space,” McDaniels said. “The coverage is going to be tight. There are going to be people in the vicinity that you’re trying to throw it in. I thought Tim Wright made a good catch but Tommy [Brady] made a great throw on the one touchdown pass that we were down in there ‘ I think it was at the two-yard line.
“In relative terms to how you get ready and prepare each week, some of that is based on your strengths, and then you certainly have to take into account what the team does defensively because some teams choose to cover a lot more, some teams choose to pressure a lot more, some teams play zone coverage, some teams play man coverage. There are a lot of different varieties of things that could go into your plan each week, and we just try to get our players in the right position to do something that they do well.”
With the threat of a run, Brady was much more effective on third down passing, with the notable exception of his ugly interception at the end of the first half on 3rd-and-1 from his own 17. Brady was 6-for-8 on third down Sunday night for six first downs, one touchdown and the one interception. Jonas Gray ran the ball on the other four chances as New England was 9-for-12 on third down.
“That’s a tough down every week as we get ready and prepare because defenses do a lot of different things and try to do a lot of different things to disrupt the passer in that situation,” McDaniels said. “I think one of the key areas for us was that we were able to keep it in third down-and-four or less most of the time. I think nine of the 12 third downs we had were third-and-four or less. When you have less distance to go, usually you have a better opportunity to do the things you want to do.
“I thought Tom was excellent on third down the other night. He did a good job, first and foremost, of getting our protections distributed properly. And then there was a lot of man coverage the other night. He made a lot of good throws, a lot of tight throws. He was aggressive and made some really big plays for us. That’s a focus for us each week, and it’s an area that you always want to try to continue to improve in, regardless of how well you think you’re playing on third down. Each week is a new challenge.
“Each defense does a lot of different things on third down, and it stresses your preparation each week with the team. So, credit the players and the way they went out there and executed. They were prepared very well last week. They worked really hard and it paid off, and hopefully we can do that again this week. It’s going to be a huge challenge because these guys are really good on third down.
Here are some other takeaways from McDaniels on Tuesday:
Q: What do you see from this Lions defense, both personnel-wise and schematically?
JM: They present a lot of challenges for us, obviously. They have an aggressive front that does a great job of disrupting plays ‘ it’s run and pass. They penetrate, get into the backfield. They’ll stunt, move and blitz quite a bit and give you a reason to have concern about those types of things as well. They make a lot of tackles for loss, which puts them in ideal third-down situations. They’ve created a lot of third-and-longs that they’ve done a good job of getting off the field. I want to say they’re first or second in the league on third down after this weekend, so they do a good job of playing their scheme. They’re very sound fundamentally. [They have a] fast linebacker corps that it’s hard to outrun these guys. They do a good job in coverage of closing on the ball in some of their zone defenses. And then their secondary hasn’t given up big plays all year. It’s a group that’s going to force you to be patient, force you to execute, but it’s also difficult to do that for long stretches against this group because they are so disruptive and create so many negative plays. It’ll be a big challenge for us.
Q: Cameron Fleming got a pretty good chunk of plays on Sunday night ‘ I think around 40 snaps. How important was it for him to be conditioned and ready to go for that game, and was that the plan going in to play him as much as you did?
JM: It’s definitely important for all of our guys to be ready to go in terms of their conditioning levels, and I think they do a good job of maintaining their conditioning during the course of the season, whether on their own or as a group out there on the practice field. Cam obviously was ready to handle that load. We have a lot of guys who have a lot of different roles. Some weeks, they play more than others. Some weeks, the design may be for them to play more than others. And then there are certainly some games where, depending on how the game goes, it may turn into a different style of game. We had a certain number of things that he was ready to do and perform for us, and it just so happened that the game ended up going in that direction a little bit more, and Cam was ready and answered the challenge for us.
Q: Is Ndamukong Suh in the same class as J.J. Watt in terms of how he can impact a game? How do you prepare for him?
JM: He’s an extremely disruptive player in any alignment that they put him in. He is a great football player. [He] plays the run well, creates a lot of problems in pass protection, penetrates, can handle double teams, can beat single blocks, stunts and moves with the other defensive linemen very well. They don’t just play him in the exact same spot the entire game, so it’s not like you always know exactly where he’s going to be. I mean, we have an idea, but he moves enough and is versatile enough to play outside some. He plays inside most of the time, but you can’t necessarily set your watch to where he’s going to be. And he plays with incredible effort, strength, power, leverage, speed, quickness. Every superlative you could put on him, that’s what this guy brings to the defense. Obviously, he deserves a lot of attention, and at the same time, they’ve got a really good front around him. They’ve got fast linebackers that are very disruptive and make a lot tackles for loss, and a lot of that is because people spend so much time on trying to neutralize him. You’ve got to try to strike a balance of doing what you do best and at the same time try to minimize his impact on the game because when he makes a big impact it’s usually a real negative play.
Q: Has he done a better job in corralling his emotions?
JM: I see a guy who loves football and plays hard and makes a lot of big plays. I don’t know any of the other stuff. I just know that what he does on the football field and what we’re watching and preparing for is one of the most difficult guys we’re going to deal with all year.
Q: Of late, you’ve done a very good job of putting points on the board right away. Can you talk about the importance of that and setting a tone?
JM: You prepare hard all week for the opponent and you try to put together the things you feel the best about going into the game each week and try to do those right off the bat as much as you can to give yourself an opportunity to get the lead. I think establishing the lead in any game has been a critical statistic in our league for a long time, and playing from ahead is an important factor in any game. Our focus is on trying to go out there ‘¦ And it’s not the same set of plays, it’s not the same set of defenses we’re going to see each week. We know we’re going to get some things we haven’t prepared for early in the game, so we just try to allow our guys to go out there and do some things they feel comfortable doing and let them play fast and be aggressive. Like I said, any credit that we deserve goes right to the players because they’re the ones out there that have to react to some different things. Our guys have done a good job of being prepared each week and going out there and studying hard, and they’ve made a lot of good plays early in the game. We’ve actually talked about trying to do a better job of executing that in both halves, and it was good to see us be able to go out there in the third quarter as well and go out there and try to start fast, too, because sometimes that gets lost in the shuffle, but if we go out there and start the second half that way, too, that can be really beneficial to us as we go forward in the second half of the season.