Sometimes, rushing the football is easy. Defenders, though, try to make it hard. With LaGarrette Blount returning to the New England Patriots, Brian Filipiak breaks down what we saw from him rushing against the San Diego Chargers.
The New England Patriots stormed back to beat the San Diego Chargers on the road in a Week 14 matchup, scoring 20 unanswered points in a 23-14 victory. A key special teams play and a dominating performance from the Patriots defense helped secure the win as the offense struggled to sustain drives during the middle portion of the game.
In particular, the running game started out strong (9 attempts for 48 yards) and ended with a bang from LeGarrette Blount, but the in-between, from both a production and play-calling standpoint, left a lot to be desired. New England had far too many mishaps on the ground (6 negative runs and 3 zero-yard gains) as the offensive line allowed the Chargers defensive front into the backfield at an alarming rate, providing little room to work with for Blount, the team’s primary ball carrier in the game.
San Diego answered the Patriots’ scheme (mostly power run blocking) with both penetration from the perimeter and power of their own along the interior. Outside linebacker Melvin Ingram ‒ the Chargers most disruptive defender on the night ‒ used quickness and strength to beat left tackle Nate Solder and tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui and Rob Gronkowski in one-on-one situations on several occasions to end run plays before they even started.
Outside The Box
One successful rushing attempt early in the contest came on a stretch play ‒ an outside zone run-blocking scheme that took advantage of the Chargers’ aggressive pursuit toward the sideline. Shown below, the Patriots employ 12 personnel with both tight ends lined up on the left.
From the end zone view, a stretch play (or outside zone run) is one of the easiest blocking schemes to identify since the entire offensive line (and blocking tight ends in this case) will step laterally down the line of scrimmage in the same direction as the handoff:
On this run, and in most stretch play designs, the backside defender (Ingram, #54) is left unaccounted for since the action flows away from his side. In addition, the unblocked Ingram’s first few instinct-based steps are focused on penetration into the backfield, both to track the ball carrier and to hit the quarterback if there’s play-action.
Two keys lead to this successful stretch run: a series of one-on-one blocks by the offense, and over-pursuit to the outside by the defense as they flow with the blocking action. Two different types of blocks are used to create a cutback lane and spring Blount.
Starting with center Bryan Stork and moving left, each blocker executes an angle block in which the defensive player’s initial forward progress is met with an offensive lineman driving through the exposed side of the defender’s upper body, creating a leverage advantage. On the backside, right guard Ryan Wendell and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer execute cut blocks targeting the lower body in order to drop their assignments to the ground and out of the play.
By executing all seven of these blocks to varying degrees of success, the blockers allow Blount to patiently press wide before finding the cutback lane behind Stork on the 11-yard gain.
Despite his 250-pound frame and bruising running style, Blount’s footwork has always been surprisingly nifty ‒ a much-needed attribute on any stretch run as a ball carrier has to work around heavy traffic and then quickly cut upfield.
Although not seen here, one of the advantages to the outside zone, unlike most man-blocking schemes, is that the run design can usually allow for one unsuccessful block and still result in a successful play. An aggressive defensive front looking to penetrate will often fall prey to the blocking action alone, prompting the defenders to over-pursue and vacate the cutback lane.
Keeping the Defense Off Balance
As mentioned, the game plan called for the use of power blocking schemes, sometimes pulling a linemen across the formation or using a lead fullback to isolate a linebacker ‒ bread-and-butter plays similar to those used against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 11. However, the San Diego defenders simply were quicker to the spot, often in the backfield before these blocks had a chance to develop.
In retrospect, working in additional stretch runs (or outside concepts) may have kept the Chargers defense off-balance against the Patriots traditional power-man and inside zone run schemes. Blount is regarded as a “between the tackles” runner; plays like the one above as well as the 3rd-and-1 pitch play shown below can work wonders against a defense that has its contain defenders aggressively crashing down, unconcerned about a rush to the outside:
Despite the inconsistencies in getting the pull-blocking lineman to the point of attack in time, the Patriots still ran a handful of these run plays. When executed well, they not only create wide holes for the ball carrier to burst through, but also some bone-crunching blocks such as the one delivered by the pulling Wendell on linebacker Donald Butler (#56) on this 1st-and-goal run below:
While Wendell’s punishing block is the highlight of the play, Hoomanawanui’s seal-out block on Ingram, Solder’s down block on defensive end Corey Liuget (#94) and left guard Dan Connolly’s block of linebacker Kavell Conner (#53) at the second level are just as important to the success of this 9-yard run from Blount. It was somewhat disappointing to see the Patriots follow this power run down to the 1-yard line with back-to-back passing attempts.
For the most part, these trap run designs failed against the Chargers due to either penetration into the backfield before the pull block could arrive and/or the interior line’s inability to reach second-level defenders. On one such occasion late in the fourth quarter, a little improvisation from Blount resulted in the game’s longest run while also eliminating all hope of a San Diego comeback:
While Dan Connolly’s pull block from the backside hits the intended point of attack on time, the Chargers interior line collapses the middle, preventing the Patriots linemen from progressing to the second level. Recognizing the mass of bodies in front of him, and keying off the middle linebackers’ flow toward the blocking action, Blount decides to go off script. The running back presses right toward the designed running lane, but then steps back to the left (behind Solder) and uses the cutback lane created by the effective seal-out block from Gronkowski on outside linebacker Jarret Johnson (#96).
Blount’s vision and decisiveness turns a shoddily blocked play into a 23-yard run, finished off in the ball carrier’s typical battering-ram style.
The overall numbers for Blount (20 attempts for 66 yards) against the Chargers were far from eye-popping, but the high volume of negative plays were largely the result of poor execution of the blocking scheme (and good play from San Diego’s defensive front). Even the most successful gain on the ground was the product of great vision by the running back, which covered up the failed execution along the interior of the offensive line.
Moving forward, if defenses continue to anticipate and overcompensate for inside power runs, look for the Patriots to counter the aggressiveness with some designed misdirection runs and outside zone concepts. Blount may be a north-south runner, but defenses know that, too – it’s best to keep them guessing.
All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Rewind.
Follow Brian on Twitter @Brian_Filipiak.