The New England Patriots lost a 42-27 game to the Kansas City Chiefs to open the NFL regular season on a night that was supposed to be a celebration for the Patriots. However, the Chiefs were able to play spoilers as they moved the ball down the field with ease – mainly due to the excellent play of quarterback Alex Smith and running back Kareem Hunt. The Patriots failed to pressure Smith for much of the night and left many Chiefs’ receivers wide open.
On the other side of the ball, Kansas City prevented two critical 4th down conversions in the first and fourth quarters. It kept them in the game early on and later tilted the contest in their favor. The failed 4th down conversions certainly aren’t the main takeaway from the Patriots loss, but it’s something interesting to further examine as a part of New England’s 4th and short strategy.
Belichick is not afraid to go for it on 4th down. He’s especially not afraid to go for it on 4th and 1, like he decided to do twice Thursday night. According to the NBC broadcast, the Patriots were 5/7 when going for it on 4th and 1 in 2016. Their 71% conversion rate on 4th and 1 was 7% higher than the NFL average last season. Yet, last night they failed both times. People may disagree with Belichick’s decision making, especially the decision to go for it on the Chiefs 10-yard line up 7-0 already in the first quarter. Taking the 3 points to go up two possessions early in the game is a rational response. However, whether you agreed or disagreed with the decision to go for it, the reasoning behind the strategy is there and can be explained by some of their offseason personnel moves and in-game context.
First, the two 4th and short plays.
Facing the first 4th and 1 described above from the Kansas City 10 with 9:34 left in the first, the Patriots decided to go for it. A key part of the play comes before the ball is snapped. The Patriots tried to hurry to the line of scrimmage after Danny Amendola caught a pass short of the marker, but the referees blew the whistle for a measurement. New England is notorious for rushing to the line before the defense is set and converting the first down. It would be interesting to have their success per attempts on 4th and 1 when hurrying to the line, as I assume it would be higher. Nonetheless, play had to be stopped and the Chiefs defense was allowed to set up for the 4th down try.
The Patriots are in 12 personnel with an extra offensive linemen on the play. Offensive tackle Nate Solder (#77) is on the right side with the two tight ends, Rob Gronkowski (#87), and Dwayne Allen (#83). Gillislee attempts to run inside – behind his two tackles – but when the space to run opens up safety Eric Berry (#29) is there to close and wrap Gillislee up for no gain. The Chiefs take over and score a touchdown on their next possession to tie the game up at 7-7:
Later in the game, with 12:29 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Patriots faced 4th and inches down 28-27. This time the context of the game might have made Belichick go for it. The Patriots defense wasn’t stopping the Chiefs offense and figured they couldn’t be stopped short again.
New England is in 22 personnel with an extra linemen again. Brady hands off to Gillislee on an inside run, but Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston (#50) is able to get very good lateral push, keeping Solder from moving him back and Ramik Wilson (#53) is able to take fullback James Develin (#46) out of the play. This doesn’t allow Gillislee a path to run and instead he runs into congestion and is wrapped up by Houston for no gain once again.
Despite Belichick publicly stating he doesn’t use analytics the Patriots have been at the head of the table on them for some time now. It’s evident the Patriots use analytics in some form when they signed Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead this offseason. Despite Gillislee and Burkhead being relatively low-profile players, the moves made headlines due to the analytical nature of the signings. According to Pro Football Talk’s Michael David Smith, various analytics websites ranked Gillislee and Burkhead No. 1 and 2 in terms of efficiency last season. According to Dan Pizzuta of numberFire, Gillislee was first in Net Expected Points (NEP) per carry with 0.30 and a Success Rate of 57.4. Success Rate is defined as the percentage of carries that positively affect NEP. Due to the loss of LeGarrette Blount it was expected that Gillislee would take over the short-yardage carries near the red zone/goal line and that was the case against the Chiefs. Gillislee had seven of his 15 total carries come within the 19-1 yard lines of his opponent Thursday night, leading to three touchdowns.
The Patriots strategy to go for it on 4th down in the season opener is in agreement with their organizational philosophy from the front office to down on the field. ITP’s resident Belichick historian, James Mastrangelo, explained to me that the head coach and general manager likes to fill his backfield with runners that produce consistent results in addition to complementing each other’s abilities. Basically, Belichick likes to know what he’s getting on each down. The Patriots don’t seem to believe in investing a lot of money into a single running back, and thus never have had an elite back. Instead they fill their stable of backs by optioning for players like Gillislee who help New England make the most of their running backs’ carries. The statistics back this up as Gillislee was the most efficient back on a per carry basis, as stated earlier. The antithesis of a Belichick backfield would be runners who break off 20-yard runs on occasion only to disappear the rest of the game running for 2-3 yards per carry.
For Belichick, knowing your runner is going to positively impact your team’s expected point total at a higher rate than the rest of the league’s runners is important for in-game strategy. It could allow him to take more risks on 4th and short, because his back is going to produce positive results the majority of the time. And a positive result on 4th and 1 moves the chains. Despite the failures against the Chiefs, it makes sense why Belichick trusted Gillislee to convert on 4th and short. Gillislee is a highly efficient running back who is the perfect fit for short yardage situations. The Chiefs were just prepared and executed better.
Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels should continue to give Gillislee the ball in short-yardage situations and expect him to have more success on 4th down as the sample size increases throughout the 2017 season. Mixing up the play call to a quarterback sneak or Power Pass (showing play action with the fullback running to the flat and the tight end to the corner) should help increase Gillislee’s chance of success by keeping the defense guessing. Overall, Gillislee is going to be a productive runner when he’s called upon for those tough yards.