Heading into the Divisional Round game against the Baltimore Ravens, the New England Patriots defense knew exactly what to expect. They just had a very difficult time stopping it.
The Patriots defensive front failed to handle the stretch run concepts that helped Ravens running back Justin Forsett reach over 1,200 regular-season rushing yards rushing in offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s zone-and-cut blocking scheme.
The Patriots 3-4 base defense did little to deter the outside run game. For most of the game, New England’s defenders appeared to be playing on roller skates as they tried to corral the elusive Forsett on outside runs with exploitable cutback lanes due to an over-pursuing defense.
The Ravens used the quickness of the guards and center to move past the down linemen and block second-level defenders. With the runs often pressing outside, the heavies in the middle were typically left chasing the ball carrier from behind ‒ a recipe for failure given the foot speed of most 300+ pounders.
Through great execution of the blocking scheme against a defense frequently out of position, the first half saw the Ravens carry the ball 11 times for 79 yards, with four of those runs going for 10+ yards. The rush defense improved in the second half (57 yards allowed on 16 carries), but Baltimore’s ability to establish the run early and work off it with play-action kept the defense on their heels all game long.
Running Away From Big Vince
Looking to take away the Patriots’ most consistent run defender along the line of scrimmage, Baltimore strategically ran away from defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, using backside cut-blocks to take him out of the action on several occasions.
In the play shown below, the Patriots deploy a 3-4 front using the heavyweights ‒ Sealver Siliga, Wilfork and Alan Branch ‒ as the down linemen in the middle. The Ravens use 11 personnel with tight end Crockett Gillmore (#80) in line on the right. Instead of running the stretch toward the strength of the formation, the Ravens elect to press the run toward the weak side and away from Wilfork, who aligns head up over the guard:
Off the snap, rookie right guard John Urschel (#64) ignores Wilfork and immediately bursts to the second level for a block on inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower. As Wilfork pursues Forsett, right tackle Marshal Yanda (#73) delivers a cut-block from the backside, craftily using his legs as an added obstacle to overcome. Although Wilfork avoids the full extent of the block and manages to stay on his feet, it delays him long enough to allow Forsett to hit the now-wide-open rush lane.
Center Jeremy Zuttah (#53) and left guard Kelechi Osemele (#72) work the combo block on Siliga, with the guard sliding off the block toward inside linebacker Jamie Collins. An All-Pro in the making, Osemele drives Siliga back before the double team even arrives, a key development in the play that springs Forsett for one of his five 10+ yard carries.
When Cut-Blocks Become (Even More) Dangerous
Later in the game, the Ravens once again run away from both the strength of the formation and Wilfork. The play begins with Baltimore in the i-formation before fullback Kyle Juszczyk (#44) splits out wide:
The Patriots do several things correctly in their attempt to defend the run. Siliga drives Zuttah into the backfield, winning the one-on-one matchup. Branch also shows great awareness by lining up at a slightly greater depth than the rest of his linemen pre-snap, and correctly anticipates the weak-side run as he steps back to clear himself of Gillmore’s block. Branch pursues the ball carrier from behind the play, but simply isn’t quick enough to track down the speedy Forsett.
With Gillmore unable to block Branch, though, he resets his sights on Wilfork and engages him. At the same time, Yanda goes low to deliver a cut-block that collapses Wilfork to the ground ‒ a legal chop block on a running play.
Outside linebacker Chandler Jones over-commits in setting the edge, exposing a rush lane between the tackle-guard hole ‒ although it should be noted that left tackle James Hurst (#74) appears to hold the defender’s inside arm. Osemele again swallows up Collins, thwarting the defender’s run blitz, allowing Forsett to slip through the crease untouched for the first down.
Stretch It, Toss It, Just Run Away From Wilfork, OK?
The toss play shown below is another great example of sound blocking execution and a run concept that exploits a front containing just two off-the-line defenders at the linebacker level. The Ravens will again call for a weak-side run (away from Wilfork), this time using the fullback out of the i-formation:
While a mass of bodies piles up in the middle as the Ravens interior linemen trip over themselves ‒ causing Siliga, Wilfork and Branch to follow suit in domino-like fashion ‒ the failure to defend this play largely rests on Jones.
The linebacker decides to dive to the inside of the left tackle instead of maintaining his presence as the force defender to the outside. By doing so, Jones frees up Juszczyk to seal off safety Patrick Chung, clearing the way for Forsett to cut back behind the fullback’s impressive block. With both inside linebackers initially walled off and slow to the chase, Forsett has an easy run for a first down.
We’re Moving On To Indy
After surviving a battle that saw its defense stretched thin, New England will face a far less accomplished regular season running attack against the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship game. Schematically, the Colts also differ significantly from the Ravens by using more of a power-run approach relying heavily on man-blocking schemes under offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. Where the Ravens offensive linemen used quickness to move from one block to the next, the Colts aim to win one-on-one battles at the line of scrimmage ‒ a straightforward strategy that the Patriots defensive line should be more adept at handling, as in their Week 11 regular season meeting.
Follow Brian on Twitter @Brian_Filipiak.
Brian Filipiak knows about proper blocking technique, the basics of run defense, how to defeat an overload, and the point-of-attack.
All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.