The embattled New England Patriots ground game responded with an excellent performance over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday night in NFL Week 5. You know your offensive line has had a good day when the running backs churn up over 200 ground yards.
New England’s very first run from scrimmage Sunday dictated not only the physical style of play the Patriots ground game wanted to instill, but also where and how they wanted to attack the Bengals ‒ between the tackles. After completing a play-action pass for a 20-yard gain on their opening offensive snap, the Patriots deployed the same personnel (21) on the second play, a rarity for the mix-and-match approach typically taken by Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels.
As on the first play, the Patriots are in an i-formation, this time with tight end Michael Hoomanawanui in line next to left tackle Nate Solder and receiver Julian Edelman (not pictured) flanked to the right with WR Brandon LaFell in the slot:
The Bengals have their 4-3 base personnel on the field, keeping their right cornerback on the closed side of the formation (aligned with Hooman) and using their weak-side linebacker on LaFell, essentially shifting the right corner’s responsibilities to that of a strong-side linebacker. The Bengals set their front to an over alignment with the defensive tackle lined up in a 3 technique on the strong side and nose tackle Domata Peko in 0-shade technique on the weak side.
The key to this successful run is the obvious bubble in the alignment’s B gap exhibited before the snap. This becomes the New England run blockers’ initial point of attack. At the snap, right guard Ryan Wendell and center Bryan Stork team up to block Peko (#94) while right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and left guard Dan Connolly effectively handle their blocks on their own:
At first look, the Bengals have kept decent gap integrity and have the linebackers in position to fulfill their fits in the exposed gaps. But, as the play develops, it is both the combination of fullback James Develin’s lead block and the quickness of Wendell to get off the double-team and reach block the next-level defender (linebacker Vincent Rey, #57) completely out of the play. In addition, Vollmer, Connolly and Solder all hold their one-on-one blocks:
The end result is a 9-yard gain up the middle, the first of many successful runs exploiting the interior of the Bengals defensive line, including the very next play.
In this sequence, the Patriots swap out Develin for a second tight end in Rob Gronkowski and use a balanced formation with running back Stevan Ridley as the singleback. Cincinnati keeps the same 4-3 personnel but with a different look; they switch the positioning of Peko and defensive tackle Geno Atkins on the line and go with an 8-man front with the safety sneaking down into the box. The Bengals also swap the outside linebackers (Rey and #59 Emmanuel Lamur), perhaps wanting Lamur’s coverage ability aligned on Gronkowski’s side:
The Patriots do an excellent job of getting this play off as soon as they come to the line. By doing so, they are able to catch the Bengals off guard as the defense is just finishing the alignment switch. In the photo above with the ball already snapped, Atkins is just getting in position and does not even have a chance to put his hand in the ground. In addition, Rey, now the ROLB, is looking off into space. Even middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (#58), is slow to react on this play:
Once again, we see a familiar tactic with Stork and now Connolly double teaming Peko, who was aligned in a 0-shade technique to Stork’s outside shoulder. Atkins, head up with Wendell, is taken out of the play in part because he is off balance at the snap but also due to an effective drive block by Wendell, who is then joined by Vollmer in a double team to finish off the defender.
In another similarity to the previous play, the double team on Peko turns into a combination block for Stork as he reaches the next level and prohibits Maualuga from making the play. Meanwhile, Atkins has been swallowed into the abyss formed by Vollmer and Wendell:
Ridley bursts through the small but manageable crease between Atkins and Peko and drags the eventual tackler, Rey, for a few extra yards on his 7-yard run.
It’s very likely that, if not for the quick snap, this play would have gone for little or no gain. But once again, the dominance of the interior linemen and their ability to reach the linebacker level are what helped spring this positive gain on the ground.
While the entire offensive line played well as a unit and each individual member had key moments, perhaps Dan Connolly’s play ‒ particularly his work as a pulling guard ‒ stood out the most.
With the game still competitive at 20-10 following a quick-strike touchdown drive by the Bengals, the Patriots’ next possession appeared to stall as they faced 3rd and 16 at the Bengals 35. With 11 personnel on the field, the Patriots split LaFell wide left with Danny Amendola in the left slot and Edelman split wide right. Gronkowski is aligned tight to the formation on the right while Shane Vereen is offset deep to Brady’s left.
The Bengals have their nickel personnel on the field and align their pass-rushing ends in a wide 9 technique outside the tackles while bringing their two linebackers right to the line of scrimmage over the A gap. The secondary is showing an off-man alignment with 1 deep middle safety but will roll into Cover 2 just before the snap. With seven Bengal defenders crowding the line they are showing blitz:
Since the play call is a sweep designed to go off right tackle ‒- essentially running away from the left defensive end ‒- Solder will purposely disregard Robert Geathers (#91) and instead focus on a double-team block with Stork on the nearby defensive tackle:
The double-team allows Connolly to pull around Stork and get in position for a lead block on the linebacker at the second level. Gronkowski has forced Carlos Dunlap (#96) wide and well behind the play. Also key are the angle blocks of Wendell on the remaining linebacker and Vollmer on the other defensive tackle:
While Vollmer’s block is a thing of beauty, it is Connolly that springs Vereen free into the open field. First, he picks up Lamur (#59) at the second level and then manages to drive him into Nelson, taking both defenders out of the play.
With a ton of green in front of him due to a perfect combination of blocks and no safeties in sight, Vereen picks up 19 yards and a game-turning first down:
Two plays later, the Patriots are in the end zone instead of settling for a long field goal attempt.
Overall, the Patriots had eight designed run plays with a single pulling guard, using Connolly on all but one of them. While the results weren’t always as productive as the one described above (7 rushes for 32 yards on the others), it was a clear game plan element that Connolly was able to execute each time it was called.
With the Buffalo Bills and their dominant defensive front on the horizon (1st in sacks, 2nd in yards/rush), the New England offensive line may be hard-pressed to duplicate their performance from this past Sunday night. But by building both continuity and confidence along the line, the Patriots ground game now seem better equipped to meet the challenge.
All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Rewind.
Follow Brian on Twitter @Brian_Filipiak.