The New England Patriots entered Week 11 with, at best, an inconsistent run game comprised of extreme highs and lows. While piling up big numbers on the ground against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 2 (35 carries,141 yards), Cincinnati Bengals in Week 5 (37 carries, 206 yards), and Chicago Bears in Week 8 (28 carries, 125 yards), the Patriots run offense saw either limited success (3.1 yards per carry) or opportunities (20 running back rush attempts per game) in their other six matchups.
There is no better remedy for an erratic ground game than a meeting with a questionable run defense. Against the Indianapolis Colts, the Patriots committed to pounding the football on the ground, both in terms of attempts (38 official carries by running backs) and through the use of heavier formations (a season-high 30 snaps for fullback James Develin and 37 snaps utilizing tackle Cameron Fleming as an extra lineman).
The combination of a mediocre run defense, the superb execution of an aggressive blocking scheme, and the decisiveness exhibited by running back Jonas Gray produced a 200-plus yard day on the ground – and a critical 42-20 road victory with playoff seeding implications.
A prevailing thought from some corners of the media following the Patriots strong effort on the ground cited the “undersized” Colts defensive front as reason for the success. But the undersized moniker simply does not apply; while some may forever connect the Colts to former head coach Tony Dungy’s speed-based 4-3 defenses of the 2000s, Indy has transitioned to a 3-4 base defense under head coach Chuck Pagano and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky.
Pulling from their Baltimore Ravens roots, the Pagano/Manusky combo employs huge bodies along the defensive line (Zach Kerr, Josh Chapman, Montori Hughes all register in at over 335-pounds, while Cory Redding is no lightweight himself at 320-pounds) as well as good size at outside linebacker (Erik Walden and Bjoern Werner have similar 6-3, 250-plus-pound builds). If they are lacking size anywhere along their front, it’s at the middle linebacker spots where D’Qwell Jackson and Jerrell Freeman (both 6-0, 240-pounds) rely on quickness to the ball over pure strength.
New England’s success on the ground, then, was not due to Indy’s lack of size but, rather, their decision to match Indy’s beef up front with beef of their own. New England featured Fleming as an extra lineman on 31 of Gray’s 38 carries (including the aforementioned run nullified due to a penalty). By using extra linemen, pull blockers from the backside and lead blocks from the fullback, the Patriots aggressively flooded bodies to the run-side to consistently gain a numbers advantage and reach second level defenders.
His Name Is Jonas
Taking a one-cut and go approach, Gray – built like a fire hydrant at 5-9, 225-pounds – astutely read his blocks all game long, showed great acceleration when hitting a hole, and maintained a low center of gravity to bounce off would-be tacklers.
No matter the run direction, the results for Gray, an undrafted product out of Notre Dame now in his third-year, were amazingly consistent. As for balance, Gray’s run chart shows a well-diversified distribution of attack points:
The Colts had no answers for Gray and the New England run scheme. The running left numbers do not account for a minus-2 yard run that ended with a 15-yard face-mask penalty, seemingly the only way Indy defenders could successfully tackle Gray on the day.
The burly running back carried the ball 37 times for 201 yards (5.4 per carry average), becoming the first NFL rusher to eclipse the 200-yard mark this season. In addition, 16 of his 37 rush attempts resulted in either a first down or a touchdown. Gray also successfully converted all three of his third and less than four-yards-to-go runs.
After reviewing all of Gray’s rush attempts, a conservative tally revealed 98 yards accrued after first contact by a Colts defender. The powerful, compact running back also caused 13 missed and/or broken tackles.
Trap Block City
The New England run scheme against the Colts largely featured zone blocking principles (area blocks, double-teams, pulling lineman). Following review of the tape, the Patriots utilized a pulling blocker (offensive lineman or tight end) on 17 of the 38 official runs (including running back Shane Vereen’s lone carry), accumulating 113 total yards for an average of 6.7 yards per carry.
Shown below, the Patriots, using 12 personnel with Fleming tackle-eligible, set the tone on their first possession of the game by executing a one-back power run on 1st and 10 at the NE 23. The one-back power run utilizes the backside guard, in this case right guard Ryan Wendell, on a pull block to lead through the play-side hole. The point of attack will be the large bubble between left tackle Nate Solder and Fleming:
As noted above, the Patriots gain a numbers advantage over the Colts by using the pull blocker to trap the free linebacker on the run-side (four blockers vs three defenders). Four elements of the blocking scheme work in unison to create the positive run.
First, with Wendell pulling across the formation, center Bryan Stork is left to single block nose tackle Josh Chapman (#96). Stork successfully avoids a blow-up in the backfield by pinning the defender outside. Next, a successful double-team / combination block by left guard Dan Connolly and Solder on defensive end Ricky Jean-Francois (#99) enables Connolly to move quickly to the second level and interfere with the progress of linebacker D’Qwell Jackson (#52).
As Gray presses the running lane, the last two elements come together, with Wendell meeting linebacker Jerrell Freeman (#50) in the hole while Fleming sustains an effective kick out block on the contain defender – outside linebacker Bjoern Werner (#92). The run support from the Indy secondary – non-existent throughout the game – is slow to the play but Jackson eventually gets around Connolly, holding the run to 7 yards.
Have Gronk, Will Travel
Early on in their opening drive of the game, the Patriots face a 2nd and 10 and deploy 11 personnel out of a shotgun formation, forcing the Colts into their nickel defense. Pre-snap, tight end Rob Gronkowski is on the wing next to Solder but will come into motion across the formation at the snap. Tom Brady will handoff to Shane Vereen aligned offset behind right tackle:
Using a misdirection run blocking scheme, the entire Patriots offensive line steps to the pre-snap strong-side, drawing the Indy defenders to the action. Vereen collects the handoff and presses hard toward the apparent point of attack between the center and right guard to further draw in the defenders. However, with Gronkowski pulling across the line of scrimmage, the Patriots have successfully sold initial blocking action and run direction to set up a counter/trap play.
Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer allows outside linebacker Erik Walden (#93) to come into the backfield unopposed. With the trap set, Gronkowski races to pop the unsuspecting linebacker, taking him out of the play. Vollmer, meanwhile, targets the second level defender, linebacker D’Qwell Jackson (#52), driving him to the turf. With Wendell down blocking defensive tackle Cory Redding (#90) toward the center and behind the play, the true running lane emerges as Vereen smoothly cuts through a tight crease on his way to an 18-yard gallop into Colts territory.