That's the story of the running game in New England over the past two seasons: not much production, because they don't and can't run the ball.
Whether it's a lack of movement on the offensive line, an inability by Patriots running backs to create yards on their own when the easy yards aren't there or some combination of both, something must improve for the Patriots to establish a formidable rushing attack in 2016.
Of course, this discussion is likely to be met by two schools of refutal:
- There will be those who point to the team's quarterback, Tom Brady, and say that with him at the helm, the Patriots neither want nor need to establish an effective running game. As long as No. 12 is behind center, throwing accurate passes to his receivers who can create yards after the catch, the Patriots will always be a pass-first offense.
- There will be those who point the finger at injuries for the team's failures to run the ball. With a season-ending torn ACL for Dion Lewis and a season-ending hip injury for LeGarrette Blount, the Patriots might have had a better running game if either of their top two backs were available. Also, injuries on the offensive line could be blamed; with Nate Solder at left tackle, and without so many injuries at interior line spots this season, maybe the line would have jelled better.
There are also separate lines of thinking to refute both of those refutals:
- Look at the two quarterbacks in the Super Bowl. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is one of the best of all time; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is one of the best young quarterbacks in the game right now. But both Manning and Newton have a respectable running game, which makes their job easier as a passer. The Panthers have one of the best running attacks in the league, with the second-most rushing yards in the league in 2015.
- Even when the Patriots were at full health, they still weren't running the ball effectively. In the first eight games of the season, the Patriots ran the ball 191 times for 758 yards (3.97 YPA) and nine rushing touchdowns. The 758 rushing yards was the eighth-lowest in the league in that span, and their average per rush attempt was the 13th-lowest.
|1st and 2nd down rushing yards||3.25||31|
|3rd down yards to go||7.36||19|
|Rushing conversion % on 3rd-and-2 or less||63.6||24|
The Patriots have fielded a running game that's been below-average at best and god-awful at worst over the past two seasons, but especially down the stretch in 2015, it came back to bite them. The lack of a running game was thrown under a microscope, oddly enough, when wide receiver Julian Edelman went down with a foot injury in Week 10.
Brady lost his security blanket on quick passes that allowed him to get rid of the ball before pressure would get there. In essence, the Patriots lost their running-game-by-proxy with Edelman on quick passes, and they had no actual running game to substitute to keep defenses honest with their pressure on the quarterback.
The result was to be expected: Brady had to try more long passes because his short options weren't there, but the Patriots had no way of keeping the pressure away from Brady with a running game that could slow down an opponent's front seven. NEPatriotsDraft's Mike Loyko noticed an absence in the team's play-calling:
"lead" and power type runs out of the Patriots playbook. It really limited their run game as the season went on IMO.— Mike Loyko (@NEPD_Loyko) January 25, 2016
But these problems weren't confined to just the latter part of the season. The Patriots ran the ball just 383 times, the fewest rush attempts of any Bill Belichick-coached team since he arrived as the head coach. With the Patriots' inability and unwillingness to run the ball, there was always a distinct and big possibility that the Broncos front seven would tee off on Brady the way it did (five sacks, 30 total pressures of Brady).
"Balance" in and of itself is an overrated concept in football; if you're scoring a lot of points, it doesn't matter if it's coming via run or pass. That being said, against the best defenses in the game, "balance" could mean an ability to run the ball that threatens a defense to the point where they can't commit all their resources to stopping the pass.
That's exactly the opposite of the way things played out in the conference title game. The Broncos spent most of the game in nickel and dime defenses, but the Patriots still couldn't run the ball against a five- or six-man front. The Patriots lined up in shotgun on 66 of their 77 offensive plays against the No. 1 pass defense in the NFL. They simply made things too easy for the Broncos, and too hard for their offensive line.
The problems from the end of the season recapitulated: the Patriots couldn't run the ball on first and second down, which set them up in 3rd-and-long situations that they couldn't convert and forced them to punt. Footballbyfootball.com's Matt Chatham provided his take on Twitter:
The most important lesson from 2-15 on 3rd down: no running game. #Patriots— Matt Chatham (@chatham58) January 25, 2016
Perhaps more variety in alignments and in play calls would help. That being said, it's hard to hold it against the Patriots for putting Brady in shotgun and having him chuck it all over the field when the Patriots couldn't pass protect (putting Brady further back should, in theory, give him more time) or run the ball (why have him under center when the defense is going to ignore the run?)
It comes down to the personnel executing better. According to Pro Football Focus, LeGarrette Blount averaged 4.26 yards per carry total and 2.44 yards per carry after contact, which means he averaged just 1.82 yards before being hit. Dion Lewis averaged 4.78 yards per carry and 3.27 after contact, so he was gaining just 1.5 yards per carry prior to being hit.
As we speak, their running back depth chart is Dion Lewis, James White, Brandon Bolden and Tyler Gaffney. None of those running backs screams "featured back," and although the Patriots haven't had many feature backs in Belichick's tenure, it might be time to look for a bell cow to take some of the pressure off Brady and the passing game.