A film study and game plan in one, Mark Schofield recaps the New England Patriots loss in Week 1 to the Miami Dolphins and preview their Week 2 contest with the Minnesota Vikings.
Much like the passing game, the Patriots’ running attack against the Dolphins ground to a halt in the second half. In the first half New England ran the ball for 68 yards on 14 carries (a 4.9 yard average) and a touchdown; in the second half the Patriots managed a meager 21 yards on 6 carries (3.5 yards per rush). Since this was a one score game until late in the fourth quarter, moving away from the running game that worked in the first half – and provided balance to the offense – seemed a curious decision.
In terms of scheme, in the first half the Patriots ran a variety of plays out of a nice mix of 11, 12, 21 and 22 personnel groupings. They favored stretch plays to the right side of their formation, including a number of power stretches run to a dual tight end set utilizing backup offensive lineman Cameron Fleming as a blocker. New England seemed to prefer running off tackle to the left side of their line, including four straight halfback lead plays to the that side on their second drive of the game culminating in a two-yard touchdown run by Shane Vereen.
Thinking in terms of the ground game going forward, remember that it is only Week 1 and there is plenty of time to fix what has not worked and fine-tune what has.
Shane Vereen Needs More Carries
Vereen is often thought of first as a receiving threat out of the backfield but the fourth-year player out of the University of California has shown tremendous growth as a ball carrier, a trend that continued on Sunday. Vereen scored the first Patriots touchdown of the 2014 campaign with a very smart goal line run that showed the importance of making a quick decision as a ball carrier.
New England lines up with two tight ends in a wing to the left and receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell in the slot to the right. Miami is in their goal line package. Vereen takes the handoff, makes one quick cut to the middle and heads straight for the goal line. The running back did not hesitate one bit, which is extremely important in the running game in general and especially on the goal line.
For an offense to sustain lengthy drives, it needs to convert some unfavorable down-and-distance situations. New England was able to reel off an 11-play, 94-yard drive capped off by a Rob Gronkowski touchdown reception. However, the Patriots converted a 3rd and 10 from their own 6-yard line at the outset of that drive because of a fantastic individual effort from Vereen. New England lines up with Tom Brady under center in 11 personnel, with trips (a three receiver set) to the left of the formation and another receiver split wide to the right. Miami is in their 4-2-5 alignment with nickel personnel and the linebackers are showing blitz. The Patriots run a stretch play to the right, presumably to gain a bit more field position with which to safely punt. But Vereen’s fantastic effort changes their plans. He takes the handoff and after gaining the edge turns upfield. He executes a tremendous spin move near the first down marker and is able to maintain his balance long enough to secure a first down. This great run demonstrates his ability in the open field as well as his vision and nose for the first down marker.
The Long Handoff
Pundits and prognosticators alike opine on the “run game as an extension of the pass game” and there is perhaps no offense for which that is more evident than the New England Patriots. On numerous occasions Sunday, Brady threw a quick pass behind or at the line of scrimmage that effectively served as an extended, “long-distance handoff.” Some plays were quick screens to a wide receiver, while others were designed swing routes to a halfback in the flat or behind the line of scrimmage. These concepts were utilized to keep the Patriots on schedule in terms of down-and-distance, or as variations of a draw play.
On this second down play, New England lines up with Edelman and Danny Amendola in a slot formation to the right, while Brady is in the shotgun with Vereen next to him and Brandon Bolden behind him. Miami has their nickel personnel lined up in a 4-2-5 showing Cover 1. At the snap of the ball, Brady fakes to Vereen on a dive play from right to left and immediately throws to Bolden on a swing to the right. As you watch this play, focus on Edelman and Amendola. At the snap they instantly begin blocking their defender. This play is a designed throw to Bolden, and an example of a “long handoff.” Bolden is able to get the ball out in space, moving away from the linebackers, and picks up a four yard gain to get the Patriots into a manageable 3rd down and 6 situation. New England converted the third down on the next play to keep their drive alive.
Another example of this concept took place in the first quarter, with the Patriots facing 3rd and 21. They line up with Brady in the shotgun and trips to his right using 11 personnel. Miami counters with a 3-1-7 alignment, using seven defensive backs for this play. Brady and the offense run a quick screen to Edelman who is able to gain 6 yards on the play. Though they failed to get the first down, this moved the Patriots into workable field goal range, and Stephen Gostkowski converted the 47-yarder on fourth down.
While not “running plays,” these sequences are designed to quickly get players the ball in open space with blockers in front of them. The design simply changes the mechanism of delivery to the ball carrier. These plays carry low risk and can work to keep an offense on schedule in terms of down-and-distance situations.
Watch Cameron Fleming
As noted above, the Patriots successfully utilized this first-year offensive lineman as a tight end for running plays, doing so on three occasions. This approach was employed in the second quarter, when New England had a 1st and 10 on their own 17 yard line. They lined up with Fleming and Gronkowski in a wing formation to the right, and Edelman and Amendola in a slot formation to the left. Miami was in their base 4-3 personnel using an over front and showing Cover 1 in the secondary. Fleming is circled on this still and when you watch the video, observe the effort he makes. First he and Gronkowski seal off the defensive end, and then the rookie works up to the next level getting a block on a cornerback. The play went for four yards, and Fleming showed impressive run blocking instincts and technique.
Stevan Ridley is an important piece for this Patriots’ offense. I want to highlight a play from Sunday that shows his promise and ability, and what the Patriots need from him this season.
Let’s look at a run on 1st down and 10 in the second quarter. Brady is under center with New England lined up in an offset I-formation. The Dolphins are in a base 4-3 look showing Cover 1 in the secondary, and using an over front on the defensive line. The Patriots run Ridley on a quick counter play to the left and there is no hesitation from the running back. He hits the hole with purpose, uses quick feet getting through traffic, and knifes into the secondary for 11 yards and a new set of downs. This decisive version of Ridley will pay big dividends for the offense throughout the season.
Looking Ahead to Week 2
This Week in Passing: Week 1 (Patriots @ Dolphins), looked at the film from last season’s New England-Cincinnati game to see how Mike Zimmer’s Bengals defense played against the Patriots’ running attack. I was curious to see if Zimmer used any tricks up front against the Patriots’ run game or if he was able to rely on the individual talent of his front four to stop the run. This knowledge could provide insight into what Zimmer might do with his Minnesota squad this season and next Sunday in particular. From reviewing the film, one thing became abundantly clear: Zimmer had a wealth of talent at his disposal in Cincinnati.
Last year against the Bengals the Patriots ran the ball 18 times for 82 yards. Not a very solid team effort. LeGarrette Blount had 12 carries for 51 yards, a team high. I want to highlight a few plays from last season that worked, and others that did not, against a Mike Zimmer front. When juxtaposed with last week’s Vikings’ film, I think this will give connoisseurs of the running game some hope for this coming Sunday.
Geno Atkins is a Beast
If you do not know the name Geno Atkins, you should. To quote Jon Gruden, “this guy is a football player!”
On this play, the Patriots come out in a singleback formation using 21 personnel, with Brady under center. The Bengals are set up in a 4-2-5, with the defensive line in an over front. The Patriots run a delay with James Develin, the fullback, cracking down inside to lead the ball carrier through the hole. Watch Atkins, who is circled in the still of the pre-snap alignment. As the ball is snapped, Atkins manhandles LG Logan Mankins, controlling both the A and B gaps in the process. Because of the play from Atkins, Develin cannot work his way through the hole to the linebacker on the next level who makes the tackle. Atkins assists at the end on the takedown, just for good measure, in a great individual effort from the defensive tackle.
Here, the Patriots line up in a singleback formation with 12 personnel, again with Brady under center. They motion tight end Matthew Mulligan into the backfield to set up an offset I-formation and run a halfback lead counter right at Geno Atkins. The Bengals are aligned in a base 4-3 for this set. As the play develops, Mankins and LT Nate Solder get a good double-team on Atkins, but watch what the defensive tackle does: He takes himself to the ground, swallowing up Mankins and Solder and collapsing the hole. On the backside, defensive end Carlos Dunlap has beaten the right tackle with a speed move. Blount is forced to hesitate in the backfield because of the play from Atkins, allowing Dunlap to flow to the ball carrier and stop him for no gain. This was a very smart football play from Geno Atkins. Even when blocked, he disrupts the play and puts his teammates in position to make plays.
While the Bengals were for the most part able to rely on individual ability to hold the Patriots’ running game in check, they also did a few things schematically on occasion that caused the Patriots problems. Here is one example of a simple twist that left a ball carrier struggling to find a hole.
The Patriots have Brady in the shotgun with Brandon Bolden next to him, utilizing 11 personnel. The Bengals have a 4-2-5 alignment with nickel personnel, and the front four are in base positions. New England runs a halfback delay. On the left side of the defensive line, the Bengals run a simple twist. The left defensive tackle is in a 2 technique in the B gap, while the left defensive end is in the C gap using 5 technique.
At the snap of the ball they switch gap responsibilities, with the defensive end crashing inside and the defensive tackle looping behind him to the outside. The defensive end beats the guard and tackle to the backfield, as demonstrated by this still from the moment Bolden receives the handoff:
Bolden is forced to make a cut in the backfield and, as a result, a defender has time to work off his blocker and make the tackle: Geno Atkins.
What Worked Against the Bengals
While the film and the stat line show that the Bengals were able to hold the Patriots’ running game at bay, New England did find ways to succeed on the ground, often through a mix of scheme and individual effort.
For this play, New England lines up in a singleback formation with Brady under center, with their 11 personnel on the field. The Bengals are in a standard 4-2-5 nickel package, with the front four aligned in an over front. The Patriots bring the tight end, Michael Hoomanawanui, in motion and run a lead play behind him. Hoomanawanui makes a fantastic block on defensive tackle Domata Peko at the point of attack, allowing Blount to hit the hole quickly, make one cut, and then burst for a ten yard gain and a first down.
Hoomanawanui is responsible for the success of this next play as well. The Patriots line up in a singleback formation with Brady under center using 11 personnel and bring Hoomanawanui in short motion into the backfield, leaving them in an offset I-formation at the snap of the ball. The Bengals are in a 4-2-5 alignment, with the front four showing an over front. New England runs a halfback lead to the weak side of the formation, with Hoomanawanui again leading the way. When you watch this play from the end-zone view, notice the quick combination of blocks from Mankins, Ryan Wendell and Hoomanawanui. Mankins and Wendell double team Peko at the snap, and Mankins quickly sheds Peko to get up to the linebacker. As Peko looks to be gaining leverage on Wendell, Hoomanawanui arrives to seal Peko off and keep the hole open for Blount to come through for a nice gain. A defensive back has to come in from the secondary to stop this from becoming a bigger play. This is a great example of combination blocks executed to near perfection.
Here is an example of the Patriots building on earlier success by throwing something new at the defense. Having put the tight end in motion and effectively run the ball behind him, the Patriots simulate that play but instead give the ball to Julian Edelman on an end-around. They line up in a singleback, Brady under center, with 11 personnel. The Bengals are aligned in a 4-2-5, showing an under front. New England has the tight end come in short motion and fake a lead play to the running back before handing the ball off to Edelman.
When you watch this play from the end zone view, pay particular attention to the effort from Wendell. Chris Crocker, a Bengal defensive back, has the strategy diagnosed and comes up to make a play. But, after snapping the ball, Wendell wheels around the end and picks up a great block on the defensive back to give Edelman the edge. Another decent block from wide receiver Danny Amendola allows Edelman to pick up seven yards and a fresh set of downs.
So, What About the Vikings?
Having established that 1) The Bengals last year employed a very talented front four for Mike Zimmer to work with, and 2) The Patriots were able to enjoy success on the ground at times against Zimmer’s front four, will any of this carry over to New England’s next game? Against the Rams, Minnesota was primarily aligned in either a base 4-3 or a 4-2-5 alignment using nickel personnel. Similar to the Zimmer Bengals, the Vikings at times moved players on the line of scrimmage, showing as many as ten defenders there at once. While the Minnesota front does show some ability, there are holes in the Vikings’ run defense that New England can attack.
Be Wary of the Trap Game
The Patriots, like nearly every NFL team, use trap blocks on a variety of plays in the running game. St. Louis ran a few trap plays at Minnesota last Sunday, and I want to highlight one play and player to watch on Sunday: second year defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd. On this play, facing 2nd and 7, the Rams come out in a rather interesting package. They line up in an I-formation, with a receiver split wide to the right and a wing formation to the left. However, they are in 12 personnel, using second year wide receiver Tavon Austin as a running back deep in the i-formation. Minnesota is in their base 4-3 showing Cover 1 in the secondary and an over front. If you look at defense pre-snap, they have nine defenders “in the box.” St. Louis tries a trap to the left, but watch Floyd. He explodes off the snap into the backfield, takes on and sheds the trapping lineman, and blows the play up in the backfield. A tremendous effort from a very talented, and young, player.
Blitzes from a Stacked Box
As he did with the Bengals, Zimmer frequently put large numbers of defenders in the box against the Rams, and also blitzed with those packages. The Patriots must be aware of this and Brady needs to make the right decisions at the line to audible to a different look. Here is one example of Minnesota crowding the line and using a blitz to stop a run play. St. Louis lines up on this 1st and 10 in an I-formation using 21 personnel. The Vikings have their nickel personnel on the field. Prior to the snap they walk a defensive back up to the line of scrimmage strong-side and over the tight end, giving them five defenders up front. They then move a safety up strong-side as well,. Finally, right before the snap, rookie linebacker Anthony Barr shows blitz through the weak-side B gap and, on the snap of the ball blitzes through that B gap
Barr fills the running hole and Zac Stacy can only manage a two yard gain. This is an example of Zimmer’s creativity; he overloads personnel in the box to the strong side of the formation, yet blitzes back side. This concept works to negate potential audibles in that if the quarterback audibles a run play away from the overload, he does so into the path of a blitz. Conversely, if he sees the blitz and audibles away from that, the offense is met by an overloaded front.
Utilize a Power Run Game
One of the few things that worked for the Rams offensively was this power running play, something I believe the Patriots can duplicate on Sunday. St. Louis is in an I-formation with 21 personnel on the field. Minnesota counters with their base 4-3 personnel in an over front showing Cover 2 in the secondary. Benny Cunningham is given the ball on a power run to the right. As you watch this play, notice two things: First, the initial push from the right side of the line, and second, the work from the pulling guard. The Rams quickly get linemen in front of this run and it goes for a nice seven-yard gain on first down. The tight end and tackle get a great push at the point of attack, but watch the right guard, Davin Joseph (#69). The veteran from Oklahoma pulls around the right end, takes on Chad Greenway, and erases him from the play.
Earlier in this piece, I illustrated the success of a power running play utilizing Cameron Fleming as a tight end. The Patriots, if they utilize the power wing formation with Fleming and a tight end to that side can have similar success in a power run scheme aimed at that side of the Vikings defense. So while the Vikings young defense has some players who can make stops in the running game, the Patriots can look to a power running scheme this week to attack the Vikings and establish a physical presence on Sunday.
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