New England Patriots: 6 Reasons to Run the Ball More
In 2011, the New England Patriots proved to have a potent aerial attack, amassing 5,257 passing yards. With quarterback Tom Brady still taking the snaps and new receivers in the fold, 2012 should be more of the same.
Although another facet of New England's offense could rise to the occasion come September: the ground game.
There's thunder and lighting in the the Patriots' backfield, and if head coach Bill Belichick wants to keep opposing defenses on their heels, utilizing his running backs will be key.
Here are six reasons why the Patriots should run the ball more in 2012.
Young Halfbacks Are Ready to Contribute
Ridley, New England's 2011 third-round draft pick enjoyed a solid rookie campaign and should see a rise in touches next season. The LSU product rushed the ball 87 times for 441 yards and a touchdown last season, good for an impressive 5.3 yards per carry. At 5'11, 220 pounds, Ridley is a physical back who can also burst outside for big gains.
Vereen, a 2011 second-round draft choice, was limited to just five games in his first NFL season. He finished the year with only 57 rushing yards and a touchdown. Nevertheless, the Patriots saw something in his abilities to make him a top draft selection. At 5'9", 205 pounds, the California Golden Bear may be best suited as a third-down scat back, but he could very well produce in more of a lead role as well.
ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss had this to say about the Pats' young stable of rushers:
Every team has to turn things over to unproven talent at some point. After all, the only way a player can become proven is to be given a chance.
With BenJarvus Green-Ellis out of the picture, the security blanket is gone. As a result, Ridley and Vereen will have the opportunity to shine. If Ridley cuts down on fumbles and Vereen stays healthy, 2012 could be a breakout season for the duo.
A Presence of Veteran Rushers
Their experience should compliment the young halfbacks, provide leadership and create some friendly competition for playing time.
Woodhead is the Swiss Army knife of the running back crew. The Chadron State alum helps out in the run game, the pass game and on special teams. In his two seasons with the Patriots, Woodhead has accumulated 898 rushing yards, 536 receiving yards, seven total touchdowns and 437 kick return yards. At just 5'8", 200 pounds, Woodhead is the Patriots' version of a "Pocket Hercules." He's tough, strong and can fit in your pocket.
As for Joseph Addai, the ex-Indianapolis Colt is a dynamic player who can run it up the gut or snag passes out of the backfield. The 29-year-old has two 1,000-yard seasons on his résumé and has tallied 191 catches in his six NFL seasons. Addai has a good build at 5'11, 205 pounds and is valuable in pass protection.
Both Woodhead and Addai should garner their share of responsibilities and make the running back-by-committee approach a serious threat moving forward.
The Fullback Position Is Back
By no means are the Patriots a ground-and-pound football team. Yet, based on the fact that three fullbacks are on the 90-man roster, the team has reemphasized a desire to play with a lead blocker.
ESPNBoston.com's Mike Rodak analyzed New England's personnel at fullback:
The first time in years the Patriots have invested this much into the position, expect at least one of the players here to make the roster. Larsen has positional versatility, having also played linebacker in Denver. How the Patriots use a fullback in their offense will be a storyline coming into this season.
The fullback position is growing extinct in the modern-day NFL, but a team's proficiency in short-yardage situations is largely dependent on a 240-pound body plowing through for the tailback to get first downs. It's a job with little glory, but their service is crucial in keeping drives alive.
With a fullback on board, the Pats' rushing attack should thrive.
The Running Game Benefits from the Two-Tight End Set
The Patriots have two of the most dangerous tight ends in the NFL with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. In 2011, the dual threat racked up 2,237 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns. Their tremendous success works in favor of New England's offense in more ways than one, however.
Two-tight end sets force defenses to play off in preparation for the pass. Consequently, the defense is vulnerable to the run. With versatile big bodies like Gronkowski and Hernandez, the Patriots have tight ends who can do more than just catch passes—they can block.
ESPN's John Clayton analyzed the latest trend in the NFL offense:
Nine of the league's 14 3-4 defenses are in the AFC. Placing a tight end on each side of the offensive line leaves those defenses wondering which side is the strong side. The extra tight end could slow down some of the league's top pass-rushing 3-4 linebackers.
This is what separates the Pats' use of tight ends from other teams who operate primarily out of a three-wide receiver formation. When wide outs are subbed off the field and bulky tight ends step on, defenses expect the a run play.
But that can't be presumed when a team faces the Patriots. No matchup can truly compensate for the two-headed monster that New England's brass has created.
New England's Offensive Line Is One of the NFL's Best
The Patriots' offensive line is one of the strongest in the NFL. Which means that the running backs should have some holes to run through in the upcoming season.
Blockers aren't rewarded with statistics other than sacks allowed, but they can live vicariously through their team's offensive success. To give credit where credit is due, Evan Silva of Rotoworld.com ranked New England's blockers as the second-best in the league heading into 2012.
The squad has Pro Bowl worthy linemen including Brian Waters, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen and Sebastian Vollmer. However, Waters hasn't been in mini camp, Mankins is recovering from a torn ACL, Koppen has returned after suffering a broken ankle last September and Vollmer has been hampered by back issues.
Barring any sort of setback, the Pats also have Robert Gallery who has notched 103 starts in the NFL at guard and tackle. Not to mention, Dan Connolly is another solid lineman who can line up at guard and center.
There is also promise in 2011 first-round pick Nate Solder, who looks to be next in line to fill Matt Light's shoes at starting left tackle. And, last year's highly regarded fifth-round draft pick Marcus Cannon should continue to progress in a reserve tackle role.
If these top caliber lineman can hold their own, there is no reason why running plays shouldn't be called. All the hard work up front is what lets everything else unfold. Chances are, New England's o-line will win its share of battles on the line of scrimmage in 2012.
A Passing Attack Coincides with a Rushing Attack
In order to alleviate the pressure from Tom Brady—who will be 35 in August—the Patriots' game plan must place a higher priority on running the ball.
The key to a dangerous offense is a nearly equal dose of runs and passes. Although, the Patriots haven't committed to that in year's past. And, the recent rise of passing has been seen across the league.
According to Pat Kirwan, the author of Take Your Eye Off The Ball, the NFL has transitioned into a pass-heavy league. In fact, in 2010, only four teams called more run plays than pass plays. Clearly, the Patriots weren't one of those franchises.
During the 2011 season, Brady threw 611 passes—a career high. Granted, New England's wide receiver position is fully stocked and should make for entertaining football this fall, but a well balanced offense is the way to keep a defense guessing.
By letting the Patriots' rushers pick up the slack, the chains will keep moving and the defense won't lay back in coverage expecting Brady to throw dink-and-dunk completions down the field.
If anything, the notable wide receiver acquisitions of Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney and Donte' Stallworth should assist in the efficiency of the ground game. Therefore, Coach Belichick and staff must take advantage of the resources at their disposal.
Controlling the ball is what controls the game. The Patriots failed to do just that against the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI when leading 17-15 with four minutes left. A second-and-11 incompletion from Brady to Wes Welker reverberated among Pats fans. Yet, that occurred because the running backs failed to get the necessary yardage to kill the clock.
The revitalized running back group will try to change that problem in 2012, but it must be given a shot to succeed first.