The New England Patriots entered their Week 1 matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers with a new corps of running backs. Brian Filipiak rolled tape on the surprise performance of Dion Lewis in pass protection.
Every week, running backs around the league fill the stat sheet with rushing yards and receptions. But one important facet of a running back’s role not revealed in a boxscore is execution as a pass blocker. Often overlooked, a running back’s ability ‒ or inability ‒ to understand and execute pass protection responsibilities is crucial to the success or failure of a given play.
In Week 1, Patriots running back Dion Lewis racked up 120 all-purpose yards (69 rushing, 51 receiving) in a 28-21 win over the Steelers. The well-traveled Lewis, who has battled injuries and last appeared in a regular season game during the 2012 season, played an integral part in the victory, converting five first downs while averaging 6.3 yards per touch.
While his contributions in the running game and as a receiver against the Steelers can be easily quantified, Lewis’s efforts in pass protection require closer examination.
Practice Makes Perfect
Foreseeing the possibility of losing running back Shane Vereen in free agency following the the 2014 season, the Patriots search for a potential replacement of the heavily used third-down / change-of-pace back began before he even left for the New York Giants in free agency. It started with New England’s selection of running back James White in the fourth round of last year’s draft; but, in a move that largely went under the radar in the midst of the club’s championship run, the Patriots also signed the 24-year-old Lewis to a futures contract near the end of the 2014 regular season.
With White seemingly waiting in the wings to take over the Vereen role, and competition added with the signing of running back Travaris Cadet in free agency, Lewis was a long-shot to even make the 53-man roster, let alone start the season opener.
Compactly built and extremely shifty, the 5-foot-8, sub-200 pound Lewis, who only appeared in two preseason games, flashed his potential both in camp and against Pittsburgh as a perfect fit for the scatback role in the Patriots up-tempo, “spread them out” approach. Lewis put up numbers, but he also exhibited good recognition and effort in pass protection. In New England’s second preseason game ‒ and Lewis’s first live action on a football field in nearly a year ‒ the running back showed some of his capability in blitz pickup:
Here, Lewis is aligned offset to the left of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo out of the shotgun on 2nd and 8. The New Orleans Saints defense drops a safety into the box to show blitz off the right edge. At the snap, the Saints, indeed, send five pass rushers:
The pass protection scheme, which would have been determined pre-snap based on the defensive look and offensive play call, appears to have the entire offensive line slide left, building a wall of blockers in front and to the backside of the QB. This likely leaves Lewis with an edge read / release responsibility. If at least one of the overhang defenders rush the QB, Lewis must stay in to block. If not, he releases into the flat as an outlet receiver.
In this case, with the pressure coming, Lewis reacts quickly to execute a chip block on the blitzing safety, redirecting the path of the defender just enough to buy time on the quick-hitting slant pass, as well as preventing a post-throw hit on Garoppolo.
But while the proper diagnosis of the pressure and reaction time exhibited by Lewis shows promise, his pre-block technique does leave him, and his QB, susceptible, especially if the play in the pocket needs to be extended to a second read. In Lewis’s effort to cross the formation and arrive in time to meet his target, he jump cuts and slightly overshoots the defender, opening up a shorter lane to the QB toward the inside. On this play, Lewis recovers with a good, disruptive punch on the defender, and the ball is out fast on the three-step drop before any harm can be done.
We’re On To Pittsburgh
On the Week 1 play shown below, Lewis helps thwart a well-designed blitz by the Steelers:
Out of a singleback set, Lewis has his eyes locked on linebacker Ryan Shazier (#50) at the snap. Not seen in the video is quarterback Tom Brady designating Lawrence Timmons (#94) as the mike linebacker pre-snap, which informs the offensive line, in this case right guard Josh Kline (#67), that Timmons will be their responsibility to block if he rushes the passer.
While Shazier and Timmons both rush the passer, the two inside linebackers run a designed twist, crossing paths in order to exchange gap assignments. This particular pressure scheme looks to exploit the B gap no matter the pass protection call for the offensive line. But Lewis correctly reads Shazier on the twist and arrives quickly to meet the defender in the once-vacated gap. He delivers an effective block that secures time and a wide-open throwing lane for Brady.
Again, the diagnosis is spot on. Lewis also exhibits better technique in his block this time around. Staying in relative position between defender and QB, the running back squares his hips with Shazier, gets low position for leverage and targets his block at the numbers. Lewis delays the linebacker’s progress and forces him wide, keeping Brady upright post-throw.
Because this particular pass play is a short drop back in the face of a blitz, the semi-cut block against a bigger defender is the correct tactic. However, if there is room for improvement, it can be found in Lewis’s use, or lack thereof, of his hands. The running back tends to opt for a one-shot chip or low shoulder block instead of an initial punch followed by quick hands and feet to maintain control and force a defender wide.
Finish The Play
Even when the running back appears to be doing nothing in the backfield, he’s doing something. And although the end result may not always seem like much, reading a defense in that split second and finishing the play breeds consistency in pass protection over time.
In the example below, Lewis is not much of a factor on the Steelers four-man pass rush because of the quick pass play. But he does appear to diagnose the pressure and place himself in position to execute a block:
With Pittsburgh showing pressure both off the left edge and up the middle, the New England offensive line call appears to be a full slide toward the side of the overhang defender, linebacker Bud Dupree (#48). With tight end Rob Gronkowski releasing into a pass pattern off the snap, Lewis likely has a dual read within the six-man pass protection scheme. If so, his first read will be the nearest threat, which is the potential inside rusher, Shazier (#50). But with the middle linebacker dropping back into coverage post-snap, Lewis must quickly scan for his second read, the outside rusher James Harrison (#92), who is initially left unblocked because of the full slide by the offensive line.
Although Brady quickly floats a short pass just over the outstretched leap of the linebacker, Lewis does a good job diagnosing the situation and places himself in position to identify the need for a cut block on a much-larger defender. With the pass already halfway to its target, Lewis finishes the block on Harrison.
Lewis shares the same uniform number as former New England running back Kevin Faulk ‒ the first in a succession line of highly productive change-of-pace backs that have been paired with Brady. And while Lewis and Faulk share other similarities ‒ small frame, elusiveness out of the backfield and open-field quickness as a receiver ‒ Faulk’s aptitude in pass protection and blitz pick-up, which always garnered him praise from head coach Bill Belichick, was an underrated trait.
For the most part, running backs are more often noticed for their ability to carry and catch the football. But on the handful of occasions they are asked to stay in and serve as the last line of defense for their QB, a running back’s execution in pass protection can be just as crucial as a 20-yard run. If Lewis is to maintain his role as the Patriots primary change-of-pace back moving forward, he will need to continue to progress in pass protection.
Follow Brian on Twitter @Brian_Filipiak.