Monday, June 1, 2015

Musket Reloaded - Part 2: Patriots' Running Game Built On Youth, Heft

Legarrette Blount is the only returning Patriot running back with any tangible experience

They called him "Sweet Feet" in college.

James White even has the moniker as his twitter handle, but had little opportunity to live up to the nickname in the 2014 season, as he essentially redshirted on the active roster, but in the opportunities he did receive, the results were mixed.

Inexperience and lack of quality game reps was one reason why, but the biggest obstacle for White's success in the Patriots running game was the zone blocking scheme that the team employed, which plays to the strengths of someone like, say, LeGarrette Blount, who is exceptional at identifying where the cutback lanes are going to open up.

He did it at the University of Oregon, and with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and then again with the Patriots the past two seasons, strange as that journey has been.  But White came from a system in Wisconsin where he followed a one-cut Wall Blocking scheme performed by nasty and overly large human beings.

Wall blocking is something like a zone blocking scheme in that any uncovered linemen, meaning that they are not being mirrored by a defensive player, will either double to the inside to drive defensive linemen out of the running lanes or will quickly reach the second level to deal with the Mike 'backer. What makes this scheme different from a zone is that all of the covered linemen initiate drive blocks.

So when White got the ball at Wisconsin, all he had to do was identify which lineman was uncovered and cut into that hole with a full head of steam.  When the play went to the left, it was usually off-tackle for the smallish (5' 10", 205) White, gliding through the hole - but when the play went right, White planted and exploded upfield utilizing a "Hop cut", initiating a hop step, and when his right foot hit the turf, the amount of torque generated had White on the second level often before his linemen could get there.

When that happened, he simply displayed a variety of open-field moves that helped him average over six yards per carry in college, including the meanest stutter step this side of Barry Sanders, and when the ball comes to him over the top, in the flat or on the wheel, he has excellent hands and, obviously, the elusiveness to pick up good yards after the catch.

But there is a reason why running backs from Wisconsin have traditionally had a tough time following up their college careers with productive pro careers, and much of it has to do with the Badgers' program being a grind-it-out, power running entity, based almost solely on the size and nastiness of the offensive linemen, and not so much who is in the backfield at any given time.

White shared duties in with Melvin Gordon in college, together racking up well over 3,000 yards - and before that he was splitting carries in high school with Cincinnati Bengals' running back Giovanni Bernard.  In fact, White has never been the guy anywhere he's played, so it's wise to not look at him as anything but a passing back...

...which is not to discount either his talent, nor what the passing back means to the New England offense, as it plays a significant role in the concept driven scheme.  White has shown that he has the intestinal fortitude to carry the ball in the tall timber, but given how defenses in the AFC East have some of the best run-stopping units in the NFL, the inside pounding will fall to a different cast of characters.

With a philosophical shift to the hybrid Wall Blocking scheme prompted by both the improvement of the defenses of the other divisional foes, and by the availability of Belichick's drive blockers in the draft, new life has been breathed into the running game - as has the Dark Master's decision to let the former tandem of power back Stevan Ridley and passing back Shane Vereen kick rocks to other destination.

What remains is a mixture of power and potential, but with only one running back having any sort of protracted experience in the offense.

Patriots' fans have already experienced Blount, who is a different cat than most, his syrup-on-waffles style through the hole more suited for the zone blocking scheme, of which the Wall scheme incorporates some key attributes - flowing along the line in search of his cutback lane, which he somehow manages to squeeze through more often than not.

What happens after that is a defensive back's worst nightmare, Blount in the open field and building up to top speed while looking for someone to run over - in effect, a 250 pound "Bumble", corners and safeties and trailing linebackers bouncing off of him.  People tend to discount Blount as a one trick pony, but that one trick makes him one of the most effective four minute offense backs in the league.

Third-year man Jonas Gray could be a comparable talent, but last season he was like a UFO on a radar screen - blasting onto the scene like a bat out of hell for a brief glimpse and then suddenly disappearing just as quickly.  Granted, much of that had to do with the Patriots re-acquiring Blount off of waivers from the Steelers, which probably means that his status on the Patriots' roster is far from decided...

...particularly if redshirt sophomore Tyler Gaffney performs in camp that way he did in his senior year at Stanford.  Of all Patriots' running backs, Gaffney is the one player who has the combination of size, speed, pass protection skills and solid hands to become a lead back, eventually, if not this season.

Gaffney is an unknown quantity, as he spent all of last season on the Patriots' injured list after being plucked off waivers by Belichick.  Projected to be a third round selection in last season's draft, he fell all the way to Carolina in the sixth round, as questions about his commitment to football and his relative inexperience of being a lead back in college came into play.

Both questions arising from him leaving school after his junior year to play baseball in the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system, then returning for his senior year when he flat went off on the Pac-12, rushing for 1700 yards and 21 touchdowns in his only season as a starter.  At 6' 0" and 220 pounds, the duck-footed Gaffney looks a lot like Seattle Seahawks' runner Marshawn Lynch in the open field and at times in college looked just as difficult to bring down.

Needless to say, the competition at running back in training camp will be interesting, what with Gaffney trying to carve out a spot to split time with Blount, while Gray and free agent signee Tavaris Cadet - late of New Orleans - try to do enough to latch onto what should be a fourth and final spot on the depth chart, fifth if one stops to consider that Brandon Bolden should stick on the roster as a running back in spirit only, as it is his special teams' play that makes his spot valuable.

As touched upon in the first part of this series, New England managed a pedestrian 3.9 yards per carry as the offensive line was forced to rely upon try-hard types in guards Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell to flank rookie pivot Bryan Stork.  Both Connolly and Wendell are under-sized scrappers, neither of whom should still be on the Patriots roster when the season starts.

Connolly, who is still floating around in free agency limbo, likely won't be re-signed as rookie Shaq Mason is the favorite to assume the right guard spot while Wendell may have to endure being cut in camp with fourth round pick Tre' Jackson penciled in at left guard - and all together with Stork, suddenly the Patriot's interior line looks physical and nasty tempered...

...and the fact that Jackson played alongside Stork at Florida State for a couple of years probably means that there is already chemistry between the two, which also means that the only real spot on the line with an unknown quantity is Connolly's old right guard position, but if Mason's reputation of being a violent run blocker manifests, this could be the best offensive line that the Patriots have had in years.

Particularly with twin towers Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer bookending, and swing tackles Marcus Cannon and Cam Fleming providing extra bulk in New England's six lineman sets, these behemoths should be able to mask any struggles from the rookies while they ply their trade the Patriot way.

Given all of this, it's not difficult to see both what Belichick has envisioned and that the running game is headed into uncharted territory with an almost complete youth movement, but with potential and the resultant excitement that change can bring.

This is the second installment in a multi-part series focused around the philosophies of the offense and defense as it pertains to the building process.  Part three will focus on the offensive line, and how the Patriots have the making os some epic camp battles on the interior...

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