The New England Patriots’ running game failed to establish itself against the Chiefs on Monday night. On a night where only three wide-receivers were in uniform, the coaching staff continued to rely on the pass. New England managed 75 yards rushing on 16 carries, a respectable 4.7-yard average. However, a number of these plays were executed late in the second half when the game was well out-of-reach. Rookie James White had New England’s longest run of the night, an 11-yard gain in the 4th quarter. Even with this success, the coaching staff moved away from the running game as they attempted a comeback on the road.
The Patriots utilized the halfback under play several times against the Chiefs, often for positive yardage ‒ a rarity on this awful evening. On 1st and 10 late in the 1st quarter, Tom Brady is in the shotgun with Stevan Ridley to his left. The Patriots have two tight ends on the field in Rob Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui, each on opposite sides of the formation. Kansas City has their base 3-4 defense on the field for this play:
Left guard Dan Connolly leads the way for Ridley, who takes the handoff from Brady and aims for a hole over right tackle. The Chiefs stunt their defensive linemen to the right, inadvertently assisting the Patriots on this play. Connolly gets a great lead block on James-Michael Johnson in the hole. If Cameron Fleming does a better job getting to Josh Mauga, this play likely goes for more than a six-yard gain.
This next play from the 2nd quarter is another example of the under play, running over left tackle. Brady is again in the shotgun and Ridley is now to the right of the quarterback. It is interesting to note that the Patriots run this play again to Gronkowski’s side of the formation, perhaps an indication that the coaching staff is growing more confident in his physical recovery from off-season knee surgery and sturdiness to block in the run game. Again, Kansas City has their base defense on the field:
This play comes close to going for a huge gain. Fleming does a great job pulling through the hole and taking on Johnson. Nate Solder and Connolly execute a double-team on backup defensive tackle Jaye Howard, with Solder then transitioning to the next level and getting a solid block on Mauga. Unfortunately, Howard deftly disengages from Connolly and gets enough of an arm on Ridley to slow the ball carrier and drag him down from behind. If Connolly finishes his block this play likely gains even more yardage.
In the running game preview, we illustrated how teams enjoyed success against the Chiefs when running backs exploited cutback lanes. Our film review uncovered two occasions where Patriots running backs attempted such a maneuver: One was successful while the other was not.
Here, Shane Vereen identifies the cutback lane for a 7-yard gain. The Patriots have their 12 personnel on the field, with their two tight ends in a wing formation to the right of the offense. Kansas City has their nickel personnel on the field for this play:
New England attempts a run over left guard, but Vereen cannot find a crease. However, the running back is able to identify the cutback opportunity off of left tackle due to Tamba Hali’s quickness off the snap and his eagerness on the pass rush upfield:
With the assistance of Connolly’s block, Vereen explodes through the cutback lane for a nice pick-up.
Vereen is not as successful on his next rush, the final play of the 1st quarter. Against a sub package, he attempts a run off of left guard but the running back cannot locate an alley:
He tries to cut back to his right, but he runs right into the arms of Justin Houston for no gain.
As the season progresses, the running backs should continue to look for cutback opportunities. Defenses this season have shown an ability to gain quick pressure and penetration against the New England offensive line. Running backs can use this to their advantage by identifying cutback lanes. They may not result in a big gain on every play, but they will at least put pressure on defenders to stay in their lanes and not over-pursue to the ball carrier.
Having previously illustrated the line play of Fleming, we reviewed the film from Monday night with an eye toward the debut of Bryan Stork at center. The rookie from Florida State acquitted himself well at the position given the hostile environment and while there were mistakes, there is a strong foundation to build upon.
Returning to the Vereen cutback run for a moment, re-watch the play with an eye on Stork. All-Pro nose tackle Dontari Poe is lined up across from him, shaded to Stork’s left shoulder:
Stork does a tremendous job on Poe on this play. He first utilizes a strong first step to gain leverage to his left, and then uses sheer strength to stand the defender up at the point of attack. Poe cannot disengage from Stork’s block and is a non-factor on this occasion.
The rookie also fares well on this toss play. New England has Brady under center with their 11 personnel on the field against the Chiefs’ nickel package. The Patriots run a toss sweep with Vereen to the left and Stork does a fantastic job engaging Poe and getting the defender to the turf:
Wrestling the nose tackle down was not crucial on this play but Stork nonetheless demonstrates quality technique. Again he uses a hard lateral step play-side, getting good leverage against the defender. Stork then relies on pure upper-body strength to handle Poe, and both players end up on the ground.
The rookie fared well in run blocking on Monday night. While there were flaws with his performance, especially in the passing game, Patriots fans have reason to believe that New England has found their center for the foreseeable future.
Credit Where Credit is Due
As we mentioned in TWIP, Husain Abdullah had a terrific night for Kansas City. While he only became nationally known due to the penalty called on his post-touchdown prayer, his overall performance in this contest merits recognition. We highlight two plays from Monday night in the running game to illustrate his importance.
First,,New England attempts another halfback under play with Ridley over right tackle. Pre-snap, Abdullah is lined up in the B gap showing blitz. The safety does not blitz but he does recognize where the play is headed. Watch how the defender fills the hole and takes on the lead blocker:
Mauga holds Ridley to a two-yard gain because Abdullah fills the hole and gives himself up to the lead blocker. The linebacker is free to flow to the ball carrier without any blocker to impede his progress, solely due to the work of the Kansas City safety.
Re-visiting the failed cutback from Vereen, watch the play again and notice which Chiefs defender forces Vereen to try and find a different hole:
Perhaps a still of the play will assist:
Again, from a linebacker alignment in a Kansas City sub package Abdullah quickly fills the running lane Vereen is aiming to utilize. Rather than continue through the intended hole, Vereen tries to find a cutback lane without success.
Husain Abdullah had a superb game against New England and his work is worthy of more discussion. Football fans and fans of defense especially should keep their eyes on the Kansas City safety.
Opportunities continue to present themselves for the New England Patriots to have success, if only they would show a sustained commitment to the ground game. On some of the plays highlighted in this piece, the slightest improvement in blocking technique will turn seven-yard gains into seventy-yard gains. The coaching staff needs to demonstrate faith in the ground attack and use the running game to keep pressure on defenses, stay on schedule, and open up the play-action passing game for Tom Brady and the Patriot offense.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.