Fresh off Stevan Ridley’s first 100-yard game of the season during a 55-31 drubbing of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the New England Patriots enter their bye week with a 7-2 record, a two-game lead in the AFC East, and a realistic chance at a first-round playoff bye.
If Sleeping Beauty woke up to that news, she would think the Patriots were having a great year. OK, fine. Given the Patriots’ level of expectations, she’d probably think it was just another normal fall in New England.
The leaves turn colors, the days get shorter, the "T" still runs late and the Patriots are in first place. New year, same old script.
Only this has been anything but a normal fall for the Patriots.
Prior to last Sunday’s explosion, New England was averaging a pedestrian 22.4 points per game, a total that would rank 18th in the NFL. Even after dismantling Pittsburgh, the Patriots are scoring an average of 26 points per game, good for ninth in the league.
A top-10 offense would obviously signal improvement for most NFL teams, but the Patriots aren’t most NFL teams. They led the league in points per game during two of the last three seasons and ranked third in 2011.
|New England Patriots Scoring Offense|
|2010||240.4 pass ypg||123.3 rush ypg||32.4 ppg||NFL rank: 1st|
|2011||317.8 pass ypg||110.3 rush ypg||32.1 ppg||NFL rank: 3rd|
|2012||291.4 pass ypg||136.5 rush ypg||34.8 ppg||NFL rank: 1st|
|2013||232 pass ypg||129.1 rush ypg||26.0 ppg||NFL rank: 9th|
So what gives?
Much has been made of New England’s overhauled receiving corps, Rob Gronkowski’s lengthy absence and Danny Amendola’s penchant for injury. These were major problems early in the season as Tom Brady was visibly out of sync with his receivers, but Gronk has been back since Week 7, and Amendola started three of the last four games heading into the bye.
Even with those two rounding into midseason form and rookie Aaron Dobson flashing the star potential that made him such a tantalizing prospect coming out of Marshall, Brady and the offense just weren’t clicking.
New England fans were beginning to panic. Brady looked decidedly mortal and injuries continued to mount on both sides of the ball. The apocalypse was nigh in New England. The walls in the 53rd precinct were bleeding. There were earthquakes, volcanoes, rivers and seas boiling, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!
Then Pittsburgh came a-calling, and the Patriots hung 55 points on them. Suddenly New England was all unicorns, show ponies and where's the beef.
Or was it?
It’s easy to say their struggles are behind them in the wake of their best performance of the year, but we can’t ignore the other eight games in which they averaged just 22.4 points. The key is to pinpoint the difference between the good days and the bad ones—to find New England’s medicine, as it were.
In this case a heavy dose of Stevan Ridley was just what the doctor ordered. It’s no coincidence the offense broke out on a day when Ridley received his heaviest workload of the year. He set new season highs in carries, rushing yards and receptions.
The Patriots had a fever, and the only cure was more of their bell cow.
Ridley gashed the Steelers for 115 yards and two touchdowns, but more importantly, he was able to set the pace offensively and consistently grind out yards to sustain drives and ignite the play-action passing attack.
He went on to highlight Aaron Dobson’s 81-yard touchdown catch as an example of the play-action game working to create opportunities in the passing game.
Dobson’s deep score wasn’t the only big play created by play action either.
Here we can see the Patriots lined up in a typical run formation, and the Steelers respond by stuffing nine defenders in the box.
As Brady fakes the handoff to Ridley, almost everyone on Pittsburgh's defense takes the bait. All three defenders at the second level converge on what looks like Ridley's running lane. The right defensive end freezes at the line so as not to lose contain, allowing Gronkowski to launch unmolested into his pattern.
When Brady turns around he's greeted by the merry sight of perhaps the biggest possible mismatch in the NFL—Gronkowski one-on-one with an opposing cornerback. Brady wastes no time, pulling the trigger for a 27-yard gain to set the Patriots up with a 1st-and-goal.
None of that would be possible without an effective Ridley commanding attention from the defense.
Not only does the play fake freeze the linebackers at the second level, but it holds the defensive end hostage to the run. As we can see here, the end's eyes are on Ridley in the backfield, making him oblivious to Gronk as the tight end gets a clean release off the line of scrimmage.
Dobson's bomb and Gronk's big catch are just two examples, but the game was littered with countless others as well, including this play-action pass to Michael Hoomanawanui.
Immediately following a 13-yard run by Ridley, Pittsburgh once again bites on the play fake, converging on the line of scrimmage like sharks on a load of chum.
From the melee the Hoo-man emerges completely uncovered, and Brady hits him for 17 yards. Belichick was mistaken in one thing during his video segment; the play-action game didn't work well—it worked to perfection.
Despite their success, last Sunday marked just the second time all season a Patriots running back ran for over 100 yards. The last time was Shane Vereen way back in Week 1. With Vereen eligible to return from a broken wrist after the bye week, he and Ridley will give the Patriots one of the league’s most dynamic, diverse and explosive backfields.
To have sustained success and continue their offensive resurgence, the Patriots must ride their two-back attack through the home stretch.
With Brady at the helm, many people think of the Patriots as a passing team, but in truth they operate at their best when the running game paces their attack. Last season when they led the league in points scored, they also ranked second in the NFL with 32.7 rushing attempts per contest.
By comparison, Sunday’s shellacking of the Steelers was just the third time this season Patriots running backs combined for more than 30 carries. All three such games came during New England’s last four contests, and in those games against the Saints, Dolphins and Steelers—all victories—the Patriots scored 30, 27 and 55 points, respectively.
That’s an average of 37.3 points scored when their running backs exceed 30 carries. They’ve scored an average of 20.3 points in their other six games.
With a slew of outstanding defenses and great pass rushers remaining on their schedule, the Patriots need their running game to carry the load. With continued commitment to the run, they can alleviate some pressure off Brady and the passing game while keeping defenses honest and maintaining success in the play-action game.
|Patriots' Remaining Schedule|
|Week 11||@ Panthers||Week 15||@ Dolphins|
|Week 12||vs. Broncos||Week 16||@ Ravens|
|Week 13||@ Texans||Week 17||vs. Bills|
|Week 14||vs. Browns|
In terms of scoring points, the Patriots are nearly twice as effective offensively when they lean on their running game to set the pace. Consider as well the game-changing speed, big-play ability and dynamic receiving threat Vereen’s return will inject into the offense. It’s plain to see why he and Ridley are the keys to New England’s continued offensive resurgence.
All statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com