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The Patriots’ Efficiency In No Man’s Land Is Astounding

This was not originally going to be a post about the Patriots.  I planned on taking a look at team performance in that stretch of territory between midfield and the opponent’s red zone across the league.  I’ll refer to this area as “No Man’s Land”, that area between one’s own side of the field, and the opponent’s end where points of some kind are highly likely.  If teams aren’t efficient in this area, they tend to waste lots of yards, hidden yards we might say, because punts net far less of an exchange in field position once midfield is crossed, and field goals of 45+ yards are far from automatic and give the opponent good field position.

To look at it, I focused on all first downs that originated between, and including, the 50 yard line and the opponent’s 30 yard line, for weeks 1-12 of this season. (I used weeks 1-12 because that is what is currently available for free download at www.nflfootballstatistic.com).  I was looking at all teams, but realized there was a fair amount of cleanup of the files (due to offensive and defensive penalties, turnovers, etc) and it was taking a while.  I figured you might wonder what happened to me if I didn’t write for a few days and cleaned up all 32 teams.  However, one team stood out–the New England Patriots.

The Patriots had 78 1st and 10 series between the 50 and the opponent’s 30 yard line.  Two of them were discarded because one involved kneeldowns, and the other was at the end of a half where the team attempted a field goal after one play.  Here were the results for the other 76 series:

  • 22 first downs gained on the first down play, including one TD (1 first down by defensive penalty);
  • 24 first downs gained on the second down play, including one TD (1 first down by defensive penalty);
  • 14 first downs gained on the third down play, including two TD’s;
  • 1 interception thrown on third down;
  • 6 first downs gained on a fourth down attempt;
  • 1 missed field goal;
  • 6 punts.

If you add it all up, the Patriots gained a first down or directly scored a touchdown on 68 of 76 (89.5%) series of downs that began in this “No Man’s Land”, traversing it with ease and leaving very few empty yards on the field.  Remember, this doesn’t even include the last two games that they won by a combined  81-10. To give some point of comparison, according to Football Outsiders’ drive chart data, the Patriots lead the league in percentage of down series that result in a first down or touchdown at 77.4%, and the median is 66.4%.

The Patriots do not settle for field goals in this territory, and in fact, have only one attempt and no made field goals on down series that begin in this range through the first 12 weeks.  Tom Brady and the passing game is ruthlessly efficient, and the running game as well.  On 90 pass attempts, Brady has completed 77.7% of his passes for 9.3 yards per attempt in this area, and has thrown only the 1 interception in the first game against the Jets (which served as a punt, as it was caught at the 3 yard line) and been sacked only twice for 8 yards.  42 of his completions resulted in first downs.  The running backs average 4.8 yards per carry in this range, and pick up a high percentage of short yardage carries.

If you can look deeper than Brady’s fabulous hair, the Patriots are the cutting edge team for those of us that favor statistical analysis of football.  In this area of the field, they are aggressive on fourth down and do not kick field goals, the play calling shows a willingness to embrace going for fourth down conversions, they run heavily in short yardage situations, and they do not alternate playcalling under some false belief that it shows balance, and instead go against the tendency of most teams to artificially alternate from run to pass.

The Patriots are balanced on first down, running and passing equally, but then they do not alternate as much on second down.  After the 19 first down passes that did not result in another first down or get to 2nd and short, the Patriots threw again on second down 16 times.  Conversely, after a first down run that did not pick up a first down or get to 2nd and short, the Patriots passed 14 times and ran 12 times on second down.  Thus, they run far more after a run than a pass in this area, and likely play against defenses that are used to teams alternating run and pass.  The Patriots ran the ball on 4 out of 14 third and medium to long situations, showing a willingness to get to a fourth and manageable.  The Patriots ran the ball on 11 of 12 situations on second and third down with 2 or fewer yards to go.

New England has been near perfect in this part of the field, moving through to the scoring zone an extremely high percentage of time, and it is an underappreciated area of the field, and a big reason why they are the most efficient offense in the league.

[photo via Getty]

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