The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Patriots Ground Game

One week after finding an abundance of success on the ground against the Cincinnati Bengals, the New England Patriots ground game ran into a buzz saw in the Buffalo Bills defensive front. In all, the Patriots ran the ball 22 times for 41 yards (not counting QB/WR runs) for a minuscule 1.8 yards per carry. Ten of the 22 runs went for zero or negative yards.


While the ferocious defensive front of the Bills was a difficult enough challenge on its own, the New England offensive line once again found itself in a state of flux, with center Bryan Stork declared inactive due to a concussion and guard Dan Connolly knocked out of the game in the 1st half. The disruption in line continuity in combination with the stout opposition was a recipe for some disastrous results for the Patriots ground game.

The Good

Great minds think alike; Inside The Pylon’s Mark Schofield’s weekly running recap also dissected the same “good” play. Our resulting analysis highlights teamwork and the necessity of everyone working in concert to produce success.

The Bad

The reason two FC writers picked the same “good” play is that, unfortunately, the “bad” run plays far outweighed the “good” ones. While there were too many to choose from, it seems fitting to highlight a play that worked so well last week against the Bengals, only to fail so miserably against the Bills.

Facing a 3rd and 15 at their own 47 early in the 1st quarter, the Patriots elect to go the conservative route with a draw play to Shane Vereen. The Patriots, using 20 Personnel, are in the shotgun with a split backfield. The Bills are in a dime package with six defensive backs and three down linemen with Jerry Hughes in a two-point stance wide of the tackle. The entire A-gap is uncovered, creating a large bubble to attack:

Vereen Run 1

The Patriots use a man blocking scheme, meaning no double-team blocks will be utilized. This proves to be a tough task for the guards (Dan Connolly and Josh Kline), who are asked to angle block Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, respectively. With Develin and Wendell providing lead blocks at the second level, Vereen will attempt to split the guards through the A-gap.

However, Kline quickly loses leverage against Dareus, who is able to force his way towards the hole. Vereen is able to avoid Dareus with a quick step behind Kline, but right around this time is when Williams sheds the block of Connolly:

Vereen Run 2a

Vereen Run 2b

The All-Pro Williams shows off his impressive lateral quickness, tracking down Vereen before bringing him down on the 2-yard gain:

Vereen Run 3

This type of down-and-distance run call will rarely result in a first down as it did last week; a more realistic expectation would be picking up enough yardage to contemplate four down territory given the field position. But with Dareus winning the leverage battle, he was able to force the run away from the original point of attack, allowing teammates to reverse leverage and get back into the play.

The Ugly

But the ugliest rushing attempt of the game occurred in the middle of the 3rd quarter on 1st and 10 at the Buffalo 27. The resulting negative yardage was by far the second-worst aspect of the play.

The Patriots have 21 personnel on the field with a wide receiver to each side (Brandon LaFell and Julian Edelman) and Michael Hoomanawanui tight to the formation. New England lines up in an i-formation with Stevan Ridley behind and fullback James Develin in the offset position to Tom Brady’s left on the open/weak side.

The Bills are in their 4-3 base defense with both safeties deep:

Ridley Run 1a

Ridley Run 1b

As the play develops, the Patriots use a man blocking scheme instead of a zone blocking scheme since there are no double/combination blocks one would expect when there are uncovered offensive linemen as detailed in the screen above. It’s clear that this run is designed to go between the tackles as blockers turn their backs (and the defenders) to the running lane, almost creating a “parting of the sea” effect. Develin acts as the lead blocker, shooting the space between Solder and Devey in order to meet the weak side linebacker:

Ridley Run 2

Ridley makes an instant decision to cut outside (to the wide side of the field). LaFell fails to even lay a finger on Stephon Gilmore, who proceeds to make a devastating tackle on Ridley. As seen in the screenshot, LaFell has inside leverage on Gilmore throughout the play ‒ he clearly is anticipating a run up the gut in which he will then force the pursuing cornerback to the sideline:

Ridley Run 3a

Ridley Run 3b

But once Ridley kicks to the outside of the tackle, Gilmore blows past LaFell. Moments later, Ridley’s season comes to an end after a hit that would tear his ACL and MCL.

Although the blocking scheme may call for a run between the tackles, the running back often will have the option to redirect and find a cutback lane for a big play. Generally, zone blocking tends to create more natural cutback lanes due to combination blocks and an undisciplined defense while man blocking is more straightforward for both the blockers and ball carrier ‒ cutback lanes almost emerge by accident.

It appears Ridley has three choices on this particular run: proceed up the middle as the run design intends, cut to the strong side, or, as he did, cut to the weak side.

One can only speculate, but in that split-second decision, Ridley seems to make the cut to the weak side based on the amount of green he sees on that side ‒ if he can make the corner, it could be a big gain.

However, more attention should have been paid to the leverage of his blockers. In particular, Ridley should have read the block of Solder who is angling the defender to the outside. Ridley then either misjudges Gilmore’s closing speed, which was exceptional on the play as he comes from 10 yards off the line of scrimmage to meet Ridley two yards behind it, and/or expects LaFell to angle Gilmore off.

This isn’t to say that LaFell is off the hook. Even if he anticipates the inside run, he has to engage the defender quicker and not over commit to gaining inside leverage.

But sometimes, taking what is there ‒ probably a minimal gain up the middle ‒ is the safest play the running back has in more ways than one.

Conclusion

The Bills defensive front, in particular their starting linemen (Mario Williams, Dareus, Kyle Williams, Hughes), form a talented group. They have the lowest yards per rush attempt (2.8) in the league and remain the only defense yet to yield a 20+ yard run on the season. It didn’t help that the Patriots went into the game with another new line combination, but perhaps it would have been the same story even with a healthy Stork and Connolly.

It is interesting to note that the Patriots ground game appeared to use more man blocking schemes against the Bills when compared to the Bengals game. This may have been an attempt to simplify scheme to account for the changes along the line more so than a matchup decision.

With heavy rain forecasted for Thursday night, the Patriots will go up against another solid run defense (6th in the league at 3.5 yards per rush attempt) in the New York Jets. The short week and health of the line bears watching as the Patriots may need to re-establish their success on the ground, especially if weather conditions limit the passing game.

All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Rewind.

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.

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