Monday, July 21, 2014

Patriots' Camp Preview - Running Back Competition Wide Open; Changes Certain

Editor's note:  The following article appeared originally as a contribution on

Scheme Versatility.  It's a phrase that you'll hear mentioned around Gillette Stadium at times.

And why not?  After all, it's scheme versatility amongst the "skill position" players that makes the New England Patriots' version of the Erhardt-Perkins offense one of the most potent schemes in all of the National Football League - and also why we may see big changes in the Patriots' running game this fall.

Wholesale changes, perhaps unlike anything we've seen before.

For the past three years leading up to last season, the Patriots' offense has focused it's philosophies on the tight end-centric attack - devastating in theory, but the practical application proved to be difficult with both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez proving fragile enough that the only thing really consistent about the scheme is that it usually sputtered to a stop when the games counted the most.

Of course, the team has moved on from Hernandez while Gronkowski is coming off a season that can only be considered a nightmare involving scalpels and rouge safeties diving at his knees - and with the team shying away from reinforcements, it is clear that the tight end position is being integrated into the system instead of actually being the system.

That said, scheme versatility will be the key word as the team moves on from last year's season of pain and into an a philosophy that more closely resembles the balance that was a common thread linking the better teams in franchise history.

Not necessarily the run-heavy teams of the late 70's because it would be a fool's errand to take the ball out of Quarterback Tom Brady's magical right hand - rather - to coordinate a relentless assault based on the versatility of all ball carriers.

Because even Brady detractors have to stand in awe of the command that he has of the Patriots' offense - so it only goes to figure that the moves that coach Bill Belichick has made this offseason to bring more versatility to the offense gives the master that many more options in his pre-snap reads, which in turn makes Brady that much more lethal.

As was discovered in part two of this series, Belichick's version of the Erhardt-Perkins offensive system relies on brains as well as brawn - and a versatility that seems like most players possess, yet very few have the combination of all three...

...and with the Patriots evolving into an up-tempo, play action based entity, one-dimensional players such as Stevan Ridley may find themselves either with a reduced role, or even on the outside looking in.

Belichick's interpretation of the Erhardt-Perkins system requires that all running backs have H-Back type malleability - displaying and putting into practical application a litheness that transcends labels, wherein any backs on the field have the ability to not only to take the hand off and explode through holes created by the offensive line, but also to pass protect, curl out into the pattern as a safety valve or to line up flanked or in the slot.

The theory behind this mindset is that this versatility keeps the defense on their heels, not knowing whether Brady is going to take the snap and turn to hand off or set up in the pocket after the play fake, particularly when taking the snap under center and running the stretch - and even more so in the no-huddle.

Shane Vereen can handle it, as can new kid James White.  Brandon Bolden has shown that type of flexibility and undrafted free agent Stephen Houston is adept as well - anyone who isn't is gone or will be gone.

Running Backs Roster 2014 Camp

22 - Stevan Ridley 
34 - Shane Vereen 
38 - Brandon Bolden  
46 - James Develin  
28 - James White (R)  
35 - Jonas Gray 
29 - Roy Finch (R) 
36 - Stephen Houston (R) 

The New England Patriots have had their share of good runners in the backfield - and starting with names like Cunningham, Collins and James in the 70's and 80's all the way through to turn of the century names like Martin, Smith and Dillon, they all had two things in common: running with power and confidence through the line and contributing mightily in the passing game.

Now, this isn't to say that Stevan Ridley can't be an effective back.  His history suggests that he is an explosive back through the hole and gains many of his yards with his manic style, keeping his legs churning and fighting for every yard and giving full effort - and he actually has soft hands to contribute in the pattern.

The issue with Ridley is that he has almost no lateral agility nor elusiveness which limits his ability on the second level and yards after the catch, and since he isn't going to gain much separation nor outrun any linebacker who is covering him, he is close to being a liability in the passing game, particularly given that his technique in pass protection is marginal.

Does this mean that Ridley's tenure in Foxborough is about to expire?  Not necessarily in 2014, but almost certainly in 2015.  Belichick let LeGarrette Blount, -who is a better receiver and pass blocker - walk for Pittsburgh for what amounts to chump change for the same reasons and may let Ridley walk next offseason - that is, if he's still around.

Forget the fumbling "issue" -  That is a media-driven embellishment fueled by Belichick's policy of benching any back who puts the ball on the ground, though there are obvious steps that Ridley can take to minimize the frequency.

Ridley's upright running style is the biggest culprit, his pad level being too high to effectively initiate contact and drive through tackles, taking some unnecessary wicked shots to his upper body.  The fourth year load from LSU can improve his standing among the contestants in Belichick's backfield lottery by running with lower pad level and initiating contact with defenders instead of running high and trying to spin out of tackles.

He can be a workhorse in the four-minute offense, but he's going to have to stick to what he can do well - running with power and running over defenders - to make the team, because many of the other backs in camp have more tools to work with.

Vereen is almost in the same boat as Ridley, but for entirely different reasons.

The three-year veteran from California has all of the versatility that Belichick could want in a back, if he could stay on the field.  A participant in only 26 of a possible 48 games since being drafted in the second round of the 2011 draft, Vereen suffered a broken bone in his wrist in last season's opener at Buffalo that he admits still hasn't fully healed.

The soft cast that he wore on the wrist when he returned from the Injured Reserved list in November seriously impacted his ability to showcase his usually Spiderman-like hands, particularly along the sidelines as he the ball seemed to simply bounce off of him like he was trying to catch it with a tennis racket.

Of course, he denies that the cast had anything to do with his ability to catch the football, but only dimwits, Jets' fans and other people who really don't care will believe that - the cast was a serious hindrance, but he seemed to adapt to it as the season neared its conclusion, finishing thrid on the team with 47 receptions on 70 targets.

Vereen is a competent runner, though not nearly as explosive as Ridley through the hole, and is not as sudden as one would expect in the open field as he has to build up to top speed - but with less than 200 total touches on his NFL resume and no protracted consistency to fall back on, Vereen is still sort of a wild card, no matter how you slice it... is there any mystery as to why Belichick drafted White and signed Houston as a priority free agent with a large amount of guaranteed money?

Houston's hopes can be buoyed somewhat by the money spent and also by the presence of fellow undrafted free agent Brandon Bolden, who could very well find himself with an increased role - but could just as easily find himself on the bread lines come final cutdowns.

It is difficult to ascertain whether Bolden's sporadic usage is spurred by his sometimes undisciplined techniques or simply due to there not being enough touches to go around - but either way, he is nothing short of an enigma.  He is a big back with decent speed, patience to set up his blocks with an explosive burst once he decides on a hole and with the power to break through arm tackles and to finish runs.

He is Ridley but with far better production in the passing game and he should get the opportunity to finally prove it this preseason - as will Houston, who is similarly sized as the two incumbents, but with intriguing upside.

Perfectly suited for the zone blocking scheme that Belichick employs, Houston is an absolute monster on the stretch run - a one cut, downhill runner with deceptive speed who has all of the tools to be an every down back.  He has the build and power to run between the tackles, but will more often than not cut to the outside to avoid contact.

Running Backs coach Ivan Fears took on Houston as a personal project in hopes to draw out his inner beast, but even if the rookie free agent remains a downhill slasher, he is still versatile enough for the scheme and looks so fluid in his routes and in turning upfield after catching the ball that he could turn into a intricate piece of the backfield puzzle.

There is no doubt at all about White's fit in Belichick's scheme, as he is a polished runner who can do it all - just ask him, he'll tell you.

With many comparing him to Vereen - largely due to his receiving ability - White is actually a more willing north-south runner in the mold of Danny Woodhead who has the patience of a saint and a dossier full of sick moves that earned him the moniker "Sweet Feet" from his legions of fans at the University of Wisconsin.

Like Houston, White looks natural in the pattern and quickly turns upfield with the ball, but is incredibly elusive in space and when reaching the second level, which happened regularly in college.  He's not going to outrun nickle backers, corners or safeties in the pros, but his other-worldly quickness, vision and change of direction ability make him a threat to take the ball to the house.

White will certainly see a ton of carries in the preseason as Belichick and his staff try to unravel what appears to be a wide open competition to line up behind Brady in the Patriots' backfield - something that Hback James Develin will do at times, but the former defensive end is getting a hard look in OTA's and mini camp at tight end - and since his ability as a blocking back is without question, we'll leave his assessment to that group...

Holdover bruiser Jonas Gray and garden gnome Roy Finch are long shots to make the final roster, though Finch is an ellusive jitterbug that catches well and could find a place on the practice squad.  But they will both be given their shot in a competition that could leave the running back corps with a fresh new look when all is said and done...

...a backfield that will be reliant on an offensive line that will probably be going through a period of transition itself, something that we will cover in part 4 of this series...

This is Part three of what will eventually be a nine part series previewing the New England Patriots' upcoming training camp, with parts four and five focusing on the offense, while parts six, seven and eight look at the defense. Part nine will cover special teams.

Next up, the potential changes along the offensive line and how that impacts the entire offense. 

In case you missed them, be sure to go back and read the first two pieces:

Part 1: Kraft's Business Sense, Belichick's Comittment Keys to Patriots' Way 
Part 2: Offensive Philosophy Grounded in History 

No comments:

Post a Comment