The Patriots were perfect in the red zone against the Steelers last Thursday, and a big reason for their success was the decision to go big.
In the 28-21 season-opening win at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots scored all four touchdowns from inside the red zone. On three of those scores, the personnel did not include a wide receiver. Instead, the Patriots went with a quarterback (Tom Brady), one running back (Brandon Bolden), five offensive linemen, and four tight ends.
They only have four tight ends on the roster, which made for a very satisfying film review and position meeting. Rob Gronkowski, Scott Chandler, Michael Hoomanawanui, and Michael Williams all saw the field, and all played a part in the team's dominance in the red zone, where they went 4 for 4. Gronkowski caught three touchdown passes, with Chandler catching a 1-yard touchdown from Brady.
Gronkowski was on the field for all but one of the 61 plays on offense, while Chandler had 25 snaps. Williams played 18, and Hoomanawanui 13. Neither had a pass thrown their way, but it made for a very large — and very successful — jumbo package near the goal line.
"We try to put the game plan together each week that we feel may give us the best chance to have some success, whatever part of the field you're talking about or whatever situation in the game," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said Tuesday during a coaches' conference call. "And I think that so happened to be a situation in that game where we got some production out of it."
With imposing tight ends to target, success in the red zone could be a strength. Gronkowski is quite possibly the best tight end in the NFL, and at 6 feet 6 inches and 265 pounds, creates a hard-to-guard duo with Chandler (6-7, 260), especially near the end zone. Chandler spent the past four-plus seasons with the Bills — this Sunday's road opponent — and scored 17 touchdowns.
Hoomanawanui's contribution to the Patriots isn't as noticeable; in 43 regular-season games, he has 20 receptions and one touchdown. He's been used primarily as a blocking tight end, and could line up this season at fullback, since starter James Develin was lost for the season with a broken leg.
Williams is the newest addition to the group, acquired in a trade on Aug. 26 from Detroit — where he was being used as an offensive lineman. He is happy to return to his roots, since he caught 48 passes at the position while at the University of Alabama. But he'd never seen a personnel grouping quite like this: One back, no wide receivers, four tight ends.
"Never in my life: college, high school, anything. It's a great thing for us to be able to have four people in our room on the field at the same time, and to have success with it like we did," Williams said. "My immediate reaction was more of trying to find advantages, more of doing whatever it takes to get the ball in the end zone, and doing whatever it takes to be successful. That's what this program is all about, it's always been about that.
"That's the first thing I thought about, was if we get this right, it can be very successful."
The tight ends combined for 95 yards and four touchdowns on six receptions in the first game. Granted, it was all Gronkowski and Chandler, but that's a nice TD-to-reception ratio.
No team in the NFL last season had more red-zone touchdowns than the 39 by the Patriots, who were ninth in the league in red-zone touchdown percentage (39 for 67, 58.2 percent). That was with the defensive focus on Gronkowski, who scored 12 touchdowns anyway.
Now they have Chandler as another weapon, and if they want to run the ball with that personnel grouping now that 250-pound bruiser LeGarrette Blount has served his one-game suspension, they can do so behind a massive wall of linemen and tight ends.
It should make for a potent attack.
"Hopefully we can keep it going; 4 of 4 in the red zone is a good place to start," Brady said after the game. "They're tough matchups down there because obviously their size and their ability to get open in one-on-one coverage, so if you want to play zone, we have a lot of options. And when it's one-on-one, you've got such big targets.
"Four of those plays were that type of . . . confusion on the first one, mismatch on the one to Chandler, mismatch on the one to Gronk, and then we took advantage of another one on the little pop-pass I threw right over top of everybody. Those guys are big. They're tough. They're physical."
Not to mention exceptionally difficult to cover.
Even though coach Bill Belichick said he views tight ends and fullbacks as interchangeable, nobody else has had this kind of red-zone success with four tight ends on the field together. They just might be on to something.