By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Rob Gronkowski's slow start to the season has been one of the more surprising developments of the Patriots season. Especially in the area where he typically dominates no matter how you're defending him, the red zone.
To be fair, Gronk's lone touchdown this season (which is stunning in and of itself) came from just outside the red zone at the 21-yard line. But from the 20 and in, he's made zero catches. He's been a complete non-factor in that part of the field.
The Patriots as a team, however, continue to chug along as one of the league's best red zone offenses. They rank seventh in the NFL in touchdowns per red zone appearance at 69.23 percent, despite getting virtually nothing out of Gronkowski.
You have James White to thank for that.
Tom Brady's new favorite target, White has emerged as one of the NFL's most productive weapons in 2018. He's on pace for an outrageous 103 catches, 869 yards, and 14 receiving touchdowns out of the backfield. In the red zone he's scored six touchdowns, tied for the NFL lead with the Packers' Davante Adams. Only the Saints' Michael Thomas (12) and Alvin Kamara (11) have made more catches in the red area.
White has become as reliable as any weapon Brady has ever had, and it's translating to immense success when closing in on the end zone. But don't expect him to take any credit for what's led to his outstanding production inside the 20.
"Good play-calling (laughs)," White said on Wednesday. "I just try and pay attention to the details. Coach [Josh] McDaniels does a great job of having us in the right place to beat whatever the defense is going to do against us, so I think everybody just tries to be on the same page and run the right route or pay attention to the right defense that they're playing and get the job done. I try to do my job and the results just happen I guess."
He's not wrong. Besides White himself, the Patriots' offensive line has been the most consistently excellent group of players on the team over the course of their four-game winning streak. Tom Brady trusts White as much as anyone and has consistently delivered him the ball in perfect spots. And McDaniels has certainly had some good play designs for White's skill set, like when he took a fly sweep to the end zone against the Bears.
With this kind of timing between the quarterback and running back, and the blocking to the right from all of the receivers, this play is pretty hard to stop, regardless of who's getting the ball:
White said recently that Bill Belichick always drills into his head how he simply needs to win his matchup when he's 1-on-1, which happens often. How's he able to beat them so consistently?
"I think that comes down to individual execution and that credit goes to James White," McDaniels said during a conference call on Tuesday. "He’s the one that runs the routes, he’s the one that makes decisions and cuts in the backfield if you’re handing it to him, and he’s the one that catches the ball wherever you put him on the field. I don’t really think it’s as much about finding a bunch of mismatches as it is just a player in those types of situations.
"He’s using his techniques and fundamentals that he’s worked hard to build for those moments when the game comes down to a one-on-one type of situation, and then you hope you can rely on those techniques and fundamentals that you’ve worked hard on all year to help you win that matchup on that play. That’s really any player is really going to get caught in that situation has to rely on that, and James obviously does a good job when he’s in those scenarios and he’s been a productive guy for us."
When asked about White's development into the integral piece of the Patriots offense - through seven games this year, anyway - Belichick gave White about as high of praise as you can ask from the typically tight-lipped head coach.
"He's always been a very hard worker, a very diligent guy, knows his assignments very, very well," said Belichick. "Asks questions like a coach would ask them. Has an ability to think really far ahead of what problems could occur on certain fronts or looks or what have you. He does a great job of that.
"He works very hard in the offseason. He works hard in season, works hard off the field, on the field, knows what his assignments or responsibilities are and does his very best to carry them out. You can’t ask for any more than that."
White has become the ultimate Do Your Job™ player for the Patriots. It only becomes more evident the closer the Patriots get to the end zone.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].