Friday, January 23, 2015

Prelude To A Title - Part 1: Patriots' Running Game Could Resemble "Student Body Left"

"Blount is a glider who slips through holes and who is most dangerous once on the second level, where his low center of gravity and sheer mass makes him akin to a bumper in a pinball machine, defensive backs and linebackers bouncing off of him like a pinball...while Gray is pure power, a one cut downhill bruiser that picks up nearly half of his yardage after contact. Combine those two with a smaller yet more conventional passing back in Shane Vereen and the Patriots may suddenly have the best stable of running backs in the league." Foxborough Free Press, November 20, 2014

LeGarrette Blount ran through the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday night like he was shot out of a cannon, sliced through them as if he was a hot knife to their butter, stomped through them like Hannibal through the Alps.

Why, even the normally demure and often-times befuddled color analyst Phil Simms committed a Freudian slip and called him Marshawn Lynch.  So does that mean that the Patriots' have some manner of "Beast Mode" happening for them right before they take on the namesake's team in the Super Bowl?
Blount and his offensive line have what it takes to dominate Seahawks

Certainly, we can all hope.  After all, it's not like the Seattle Seahawks have a trademark on it.

The New England Patriots earned the right to meet the defending champions Seahawks on Sunday night with an impressive display of power, hammering the clearly over matched Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium by a count of 45-7 - delivering such a beat down that not even the controversy regarding supposed deflated footballs could dampen the deed.

How this translates to the Super Bowl matchup with Seattle is yet to be determined, as everything is on paper right now, but the prospect of the Patriots getting their rush on against the notorious "Legion of Boom" defense isn't quite as imposing at it may seem.  It is a well known fact that the Seahawks are the second-ranked run defense in all of football, allowing a scant 3.4 yards per carry on the season.  But, as always, there is more to the story than just the generic interpretation of that ranking.

First of all, only three teams were rushed against less than Seattle, as the Seahawks faced only 380 attempts on the season, the result being that just five teams topped 100 yards against them, those being the Chargers, Cowboys, Rams, Chiefs and 49ers, which, not coincidentally, account for all four of the losses the Seahawks absorbed on the season.

Their lone win in that scenario was the week 15 victory over San Francisco, most of that yardage due to the scrambling ability of Colin Keapernick and a 28 yard run by backup running back Carlos Hyde.

After Seattle slipped to a 6-4 record when Kansas City dropped nearly 200 rushing yards on them, the Seahawks faced an Arizona team twice, who started two different backup quarterback, a 49ers team that couldn't throw the ball to save their lives (or their season), a Philadelphia team that was working with Mark Sanchez under center and a Rams' team that was playing out the string.

Regardless of the level of competition, the Seahawks gave up a minuscule 3.1 yards per carry in those last six games, winning all and qualifying for the post-season as the NFC's number one seed.

But that's where things get interesting.

Against Carolina in the divisional round and Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game, the Seahawks surrendered 132 and 135 yards respectively, with each team running the ball 30 times a piece, an aggregate of 4.5 big yards per carry with the Panthers' Jonathan Stewart and the Packers' Eddie Lacy doing the majority of the damage.

In fact, the Seahawks opponents in their last five games overall have rushed for at least 130 yards three times, with only the 20th ranked Rams and the abysmal 31st ranked Cardinals not following suit.  The others?  The 4th ranked 49ers, 7th ranked Panthers and the 11th ranked Packers - but where does that leave the 18th ranked Patriots?

Well, the Patriots are different animal than the others in that they have proven that they can beat anyone regardless of how they are defended.  New England has perhaps the preeminent quarterback in the game in Tom Brady with a plethora of talented pass catchers to throw to and an offensive philosophy that adheres to the tried and true axiom of the Erhardt-Perkins offense, "Pass to score, run to win".

If a team devotes extra men into the coverage to try and take away the passing game, the Patriots are able to attack the lighter box that is left with 250 pound running back LeGarrette Blount - and if they load up the box to try and stop Blount, Brady shreds them over the top.  It's a recipe for success that New England has enjoyed the majority of the season...

...which should translate to the Super Bowl against the Seahawks lighter than normal - yet very quick - front seven, particularly running to the left, where the Seahawks are vulnerable to power backs going off guard.

All season, Seattle's opposition have tried the left with success to the tune of 4.4 yards per carry, running right at undersized defensive end Cliff Avril, who is backed up on the second level by weak side linebacker K. J. Wright.  Teams have even had success running right at the Seahawks' tackle tandem of Kevin Williams and Tony McDaniels, neither with the bulk that you would traditionally find in a run stuffing tackle.

And that's because the Seahawks rely on middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and strongside 'backer Bruce Irvin to stymie the run, with strong safety Cam Chancellor sneaking down into the box for run support.

Teams have not had much success running to the right at big defensive end Michael Bennett, with the aforementioned Irvin on his backside, nor are teams very successful trying to gain the corner against the speedy Seahawks.  Power football is what is required, and New England has shown a propensity to play exactly that when when there is a tactical advantage...

...and since Blount seems to enjoy running left with the nimble feet to cut back against the grain up the middle, that seems to be the tactical advantage that New England needs to gouge the Seattle defense.

And make no mistake: The Seahawks are not invincible on defense despite their cute nickname.  Just like any other unit in the league, if they are run on enough to make them respect the ground game, they can be worn down, and with Brady flinging the ball to his receivers to mix things up, it becomes a guessing game for the defense if they have to keep at least seven in the box...

...and any time that you keep a defense guessing, that affords the offensive line the advantage of an extra split second to either pull and isolate on a particular gap in the running game or to anchor themselves against the pass rush, and with how precisely Brady can sell the play action - see his touchdown pass to Nate Solder against the Colts - it allows his receivers to gain extra separation.

So there shouldn't be any question as to the recipe for taking advantage of the Seahawks' lighter-than-normal, yet extra-speedy front seven: Hammer the ball to the left and force the Seahawks to commit an extra man to the box, eventually wearing them down.

Left, left, left - lull them to sleep, then hit them down the seam or on an intermediate crosser or a wheeler to the flat - because once New England has the defense committed to stopping the run, Brady will have them right where he wants them: Chasing the play - and, indeed, the scoreboard - from behind.

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