Last Sunday the New England Patriots improved to 2-1 with a hard-fought 16-9 victory over the winless Oakland Raiders. The running attack truly struggled, tallying only 76 yards on 34 attempts for a paltry 2.4 yards per carry. Excluding kneel-downs, New England executed just 12 running plays in the second half, while passing 22 times, a sign that the coaching staff lost faith in the ground game. The Patriots’ longest run of the day was a Shane Vereen 11-yard carry in the first quarter.
Anatomy of a 3 and Out – Running Version – Drive 1 of 3rd Q
In TWIP – Oakland Recap we outlined how New England’s inability to stay “on schedule” offensively can leave them in disadvantageous 3rd-and-long situations. On their opening drive of the second half the Patriots once again found themselves in that position. Their first offensive play of the 3rd quarter was a 3-yard reception by Julian Edelman, setting up 2nd and 7 from their own 23-yard line. Going without a huddle, Tom Brady and the offense used 12 personnel with Tim Wright and Rob Gronkowski both on the line of scrimmage and a slot formation to the left. The Raiders countered with a 3-4 look and both outside linebackers on the line of scrimmage.
New England tried to run Stevan Ridley on a stretch play to the left behind Gronkowski. In the TWIR – Oakland Preview, we discussed the speed of the Oakland front, highlighting the difficulties the Jets had on runs to the edges. On this 2nd-down play the big tight end tries to block one of those quick Raiders, rookie linebacker Khalil Mack. The defender does a great job standing up Gronkowski, setting the edge and making a tackle in the backfield. Ridley is stopped for a loss of three yards, setting up 3rd and 10.
The fantastic individual effort from Mack coupled with the Patriots’ decision to run at the strength of Oakland’s front stalls the offense. Matters are made worse by a false start penalty, putting New England in a 3rd and 15 situation. Brady is sacked and the Patriots are forced to punt. Again, once knocked off schedule, the offense struggled.
Pulling Their Weight
On a number of running plays Sunday, the Patriots utilized pulling linemen to lead the way. Some plays worked due to great lead blocking, while others were not so successful.
New England’s fourth offensive play of the game occurred with just over 4:00 left in the 1st quarter. With Cameron Fleming on the field as a tight end, the Patriots lined up with a wing to the right and a slot to the left, and Ridley in the backfield. They send tight end Michael Hoomanawanui in motion from right to left, and the Raiders roll their coverage to Cover 1 in response. Oakland shows a 3-4 look up front with both outside linebackers on the line of scrimmage.
The Patriots then run a counter play to the right behind Fleming. The rookie gets a nice block on the edge against Mack, but the success of the play is due to Nate Solder, who pulls from his tackle spot and leads Ridley through the hole. Solder gets a chip on Justin Tuck before turning up the field and taking on Miles Burris, sealing off the linebacker with a strong block and paving the way for a seven-yard gain.
Here, Solder executes similarly on another play late in the 3rd quarter. On 1st and 5 from just inside the red zone, the tackle again pulls around the right end to take on Burris, and once more Solder stands the linebacker up in the hole. Ridley follows behind his left tackle for a six-yard gain and moves the chains.
Solder’s efforts bring us to a final point on the tackle. Many fans and pundits are down on Nate Solder at the moment, wondering if there are health issues or skill set problems given his slow start. These two plays show that he is still an agile player for his size, and when called upon can be a force in the running game. Remember, for much of Sunday’s game Solder was matched up with Mack, who as we have seen is a pretty good young player in his own right. It would be a mistake to write off Nate Solder at this point in the season.
These next two plays highlight the work of guard Jordan Devey, another target of recent criticism. Driving late in the second quarter, the Patriots twice run the same counter play, but with Devey pulling in front of Ridley to the left side. On the first occasion, just after the two-minute warning, New England has two receivers to the left and a tight end on each side of the line. Oakland has a base 3-4 look with both linebackers on the line of scrimmage.
From his spot at right guard, Devey pulls around to the left as the Patriots run Ridley on the counter play. Devey does a good job getting to the spot and turning upfield. But the guard fails in the next task, which is getting a body on…somebody.
Burris is able to avoid Devey and trip Ridley, slowing the running back and allowing time for a safety to come over and make a tackle, and preventing this play from accruing more yardage. The play goes on the stat sheet as a nine-yard gain, but is an example of a missed opportunity in the running game. If Devey gets a block on, well, anybody, Ridley has a chance to spring for big yardage.
The guard has a chance at redemption three plays later, when the offense runs the same sequence. On 2nd and 6 with 1:06 left in the half, Ridley again runs a counter play to the left side with Devey leading the way. This time, Devey does his job. He takes on Mack in the hole and stones the rookie as Ridley cuts upfield off of the block, picking up six yards and a fresh set of downs.
If Devey performs more like the lineman we saw on the second play, and not the first, the Patriots’ running game will be in much better shape.
If you are not already sick of the discussion surrounding cutback lanes, then you might be shortly. The best running play last Sunday, in terms of yardage gained, was an 11-yard pickup in the 1st quarter by Vereen. Its success stemmed from his alert recognition of a cutback opportunity and adroit movement to the hole. As illustrated in the TWIR – Chiefs Preview, Patriot running backs need to look for these lanes in Arrowhead Stadium on Monday night.
On 1st and 10 late in the 1st quarter, the Patriots have 11 personnel on the field against the Raiders’ nickel package. New England attempts a run to the left edge, but the hole collapses quickly.
Vereen identifies the hole and cuts back to the right. Thanks to solid blocking on the backside from Sebastian Vollmer and Devey, and a downfield block from Julian Edelman, Vereen is able to utilize the cutback lane and turn upfield for an 11-yard gain. If the Patriots take advantage of these opportunities Monday night, they will enjoy success in the running game.
Finally, a play presented with minimal discussion.
As with the passing game, the Patriots’ running attack has shown great potential at times. There is solid effort from both the ball carriers and the blockers leading the way. However, there have been mistakes in both scheme and execution. If these errors are corrected, New England could find itself with a very potent running game. Enhanced success on the ground will lead to greater success for the offense as a whole, enabling their play-action attack to cover more yardage through the air.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.