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Why the New England Patriots Running Game Makes Them a Force in the Playoffs

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Why the New England Patriots Running Game Makes Them a Force in the Playoffs
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The New England Patriots have had one of the league's best offenses for years, but have fallen short of the Super Bowl. What makes us think this year will be any different?

The running game.

What this team has that those teams lacked, more than anything else, is an explosive threat out of the backfield. The Patriots have not just one, but two big threats in the backfield, with a third on the way.

We knew what Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead brought to the table, but Shane Vereen's big performance against the Houston Texans makes him an X-factor in these playoffs and in future years.

The Patriots have had a respectable running game all season long, but the question has remained as to whether they would continue to be successful on the ground in the postseason. So far, so good. 

Against the Texans, the Patriots rushed 24 times for 122 yards (5.08 YPA), adding three rushing touchdowns. Vereen added five receptions for 83 yards and two more touchdowns to almost make the Patriots backfield the story of the day (were it not for some guy named Tom Brady).

The backfield's ability to create explosive runs has been one of the hallmarks of this offense in comparison to previous Patriots offenses, and Patriot backs ranked eighth in the NFL in runs of 10 yards or more this season with 60. They didn't disappoint on Sunday, with three such runs against the Texans.

The Patriots were successful in so many different ways with the running game, and just like every facet of New England's offense, it's the multiplicity of their ground attack that makes it so lethal.

A big part of what has made these backs so successful is the uptempo aspect of the offense. They rush to the line and get the snap off before a defense can get set.

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo is not impressed.

He has since apologized for his statements, and rightfully so, because the Patriots are a successful running team whether they're hurrying to the line or meandering there like tourists through a crosswalk.

Regardless, the Patriots were successful with the quick-strike running attack early, in the middle and late in the game, proving that defending it is easier said than done.

Take, for example, Ridley's 23-yard run that set up a 1st-and-goal at the 5-yard line in the third quarter, while the Patriots were just beginning to build their insurmountable lead.

There was nothing special about this run, simply a stretch play to the left side. Ridley kept running until he found the cutback lane, and once he found it, he went full throttle through it.

It was the fact that the Texans defense were so unprepared that allowed the Patriots to be so successful on their blocks. Most of them were still settling into their spots when Brady hiked the ball.

Whether it's a gimmick or not, it's an element that a defense has to be ready for at all times. The Patriots ran it for the first touchdown of the game, with Vereen carrying the ball in the same direction. 

That being said, the Patriots didn't feel like they had to hurry to the line and get the ball off quickly in order to be successful running against the Texans—and we saw why on Ridley's eight-yard touchdown run.

The Patriots offensive line has been an unheralded group for its ability to get big blocks in the running game all season. This time, it was a textbook pull block by left guard Logan Mankins (circled above) that cleared the way for Ridley to burst through the B-gap.

A small wiggle to the left followed by a small wiggle to the right and Ridley dragged cornerback Kareem Jackson into the end zone.

It's not all "gimmick," and it's not all smashmouth. It's also a little bit surgical and methodical, as is everything in the Patriots offense.

The Patriots will take a mismatch any way they can get it, and Vereen is just another one of those players in their offense who gives opponents difficulty because of his skill set.

Vereen is a hybrid running back and wide receiver who forces defenses to constantly be aware of where he is. 

In the first quarter, Brady lined up in the shotgun with two wide receivers to his left, tight end Aaron Hernandez in the backfield to his left and Vereen flanked out at wide receiver to his right. The Texans responded to the odd alignment by matching up a linebacker on Vereen on the outside.

The linebacker gave Vereen a lot of cushion, and came after Vereen while the ball was in flight. His quickness allowed him to create 20 yards after the catch, eluding the linebacker and a safety along the way.

The Patriots have not been afraid to get their running backs involved in the passing game this year—or ever—but they have especially gotten back to it this year thanks to the play-calling of Josh McDaniels. The Patriots have 56 completions to their running backs this year, compared to just 37 last year.

That being said, it's the threat of the run that makes this Patriots offense more of a postseason threat than many of the units that have faltered over the past decade. It should help the team avoid a similar fate, but the way this postseason has gone, anything is possible.

 

Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless otherwise specified, all quotes are obtained firsthand or via team press releases.

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