Second Half, Second Level
The Patriots ended the first half on a down note following a Tom Brady interception and a quick-strike touchdown pass by Andrew Luck and the Colts that cut into the New England lead. Receiving the ball to start the second half, the Patriots went back to the ground game.
With Fleming in as an extra tackle, the Patriots form a balanced line with Brady under center and Gray as the single back. New England aligns two wide receivers to the right. The Colts counter with 3-4 personnel. Since the Colts are in zone coverage (showing Cover 6), the outside linebacker (Walden) walks out and aligns with wide receiver Danny Amendola in the slot. This creates a favorable attack point outside of Fleming on the off-tackle run.
Utilizing a man-blocking scheme, the Patriots look to hit the second level blockers right off the snap. But before the second level blocks can occur, crucial plays are made by Ryan Wendell and Fleming.
In order to create the frontside of the running lane, Fleming will kick out the oncoming outside linebacker, who is already out of position for the run due to aligning over Amendola pre-snap. Wendell, then, will execute a difficult reach block in which his initial step goes in one direction to invite the defensive end (Cory Redding, #90) inside, thereby gaining outside leverage, but then pivots back in the opposite direction in order to force the defender behind the play. By completing the block, Wendell has created the backside of the running lane. With both Stork and Sebastian Vollmer engaging the inside linebackers, Gray sees nothing but green ahead, picking up 14 yards on the carry.
Little Gain, Big Run
One of the most unheralded runs by Gray in the contest came on New England’s opening drive of the second half.
Leading 14-10, the Patriots face a 3rd and 1 at the IND 4. Working out of the i-formation with Fleming in as an extra lineman, New England attempts an off-tackle run to Fleming’s side with Develin as a lead blocker and Vollmer pulling from the backside. The Colts stack ten defenders in-the-box but leave Fleming and Solder uncovered, creating a bubble for the Patriots to attack with an expected numbers advantage:
On the run-side, Develin delivers a block in the hole on the alley defender while Fleming seals off Bjoern Werner (#92). Solder and Connolly combine to swallow up Ricky Jean-Francois (#99). However, the inside linebacker (Jerrell Freeman, #50), reading the fullback, quickly diagnoses the gap to plug. The run design has an answer for the linebacker, but it simply comes a hair late as Vollmer’s pull block from hashmark to hashmark turns out to be far too long a trek for the tackle.
Gray is met by Freeman a yard behind the line scrimmage, but the linebacker – perhaps hearing Vollmer’s footsteps – goes low for an ankle tackle on the ball carrier. Gray keeps his feet/legs moving through the contact, breaking free of Freeman’s grasp just past the 5 yard line. Still in need of a yard and a half for the first down, Gray prepares for more contact by getting low and driving past Werner and Jackson (#52) for 2 yards before finally being taken down by a backside defender.
One play later, the Patriots are celebrating a touchdown pass from Brady to tight end Tim Wright. Sometimes the littlest gains can be the biggest. The hard-fought run by Gray secured the first down and kept the field goal unit off the field — a four-point swing, leading to a two score advantage over the Colts.
A Little Improv
With the game in hand near the end of the fourth quarter, Gray’s final rushing attempt pushed his yard total over 200. The run also demonstrated Gray’s ability to read his blocks and adjust when necessary.
With the blocking action flowing to the weak-side of the formation, the intended point of attack appears to be between Vollmer and Wendell with Develin leading the way at fullback. However, the Colts, who have 3-4 personnel on the field and drop a safety in the box, finally win a battle in the trenches.
As Gray approaches the line of scrimmage, he recognizes that Develin has been unable to get into the hole to meet the inside linebacker Josh McNary (#57) due to defensive tackle Zach Kerr’s (#94) push up front against Wendell. Gray makes a lateral cut toward the strong-side – an area now vacated by the Indy defenders that flowed with the blocking action. The running back angles his run wide to clear himself from the backside pursuit and accelerates to full speed upfield for nine yards, capping off a phenomenal game for Gray.
In Conclusion – Reality Check
The Patriots monster effort on the ground courtesy of Gray and an onslaught of heavy personnel formations served as one of the primary keys to victory over the Colts. It was particularly important given the merely mortal performance by the quarterback (although Rob Gronkowski’s superhuman status remains unquestioned). Gray’s individual performance and the execution of the blocking scheme – from the offensive linemen to the tight ends to the fullback – was a quite a treat for Patriots fans.
However, it’s only one game on the schedule against a mediocre run defense that seemed unprepared for – and unable/unwilling to adjust to – the Patriots run heavy approach. Gray is not the second-coming of Earl Campbell – after all, just last season in the AFC Divisional round game we saw LeGarrette Blount smoke the Colts for 166 yards and four touchdowns on 24 carries.
The offensive line, too, will face more difficult challenges ahead, starting next week against Ndamukong Suh and the Detroit Lions, who enter Week 12 as the number one ranked defense against the run by yards per carry and game.
What the emergence of Gray does bring to the Patriots offensive attack is a running back that will follow his blocks, wait for lanes to open as designed, and earn the tough yards while rarely going down after first contact. Improvisation from a ball carrier isn’t always a bad thing – some of the biggest runs are often the byproduct of cut-backs through undesigned running lanes. But knowing when to take what is given and avoiding lost yards in the process may lead to fewer negative plays in the run game and more overall success on the ground.
All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Rewind.
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