Monday, December 7, 2015

Abandoning The Running Game The Talisman For Patriots' Woes

Four times.

That is the number of times that New England Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady was able to take the snap turn and hand the football off to one of his running backs during the course of the second half in Sunday night's contest against the Philadelphia Eagles - the same Philadelphia Eagles that entered the game with a miserable 27th ranking out of 32 teams...

...the same Philadelphia Eagles that had surrendered an average of 166 rushing yards per game in their last five contests, unsurprisingly losing four of the five, their lone win coming in overtime against the injury riddled Dallas Cowboys nearly a month ago - the same Philadelphia Eagles that do not rate in the top half of the league in any category besides special teams, in which they are exceptional.

So it is of small wonder that those Philadelphia Eagles were not about to look a gift horse like the Patriots abandoning their running game in the mouth, dropping six into coverage and blitzing Brady relentlessly - generating two interceptions and four sacks to end New England drives - then turning to their special teams to bury the Patriots, handing them their second consecutive loss.

And how did that happen?

Running the football is the most fundamentally sound play in the sport. It sets up everything else because if you are running the ball as successfully as the Patriots were, it sets up the play action. It sets up the route running by the pass catchers as they don't find themselves doubled up nearly as often because the opposition must devise a way to stop the run or the offense will drive it right down the field.

The running game causes the pass rushers to hesitate just a split-second, especially on the play action where they find themselves setting their feet to prepare for the back to come through their gaps. It helps the offensive linemen by giving them that split-second to get into their anchor positions. Obviously it helps the quarterback by getting that split-second longer to find his reads and get rid of the ball.

So when the Patriots mysteriously gave up on a running game that had gouged the Eagles for 90 yards on just 15 carries in the first half, a running game that set up consecutive touchdowns in the second quarter, all of that advantage disappeared - all of the time and effort for the classic set up wasted. And it doesn't get much more classic or fundamental than when in the first two possessions of the game, running back LeGarrette Blount led an attack that picked up 30 yards in just four carries, forcing the Eagles to adjust by bringing a safety down into the box.

The next two possessions, both resulting in touchdowns, the Patriots ran for only 21 yards in eight carries as the Eagles remained in their base defense and Brady shredded them, completing 7 of 10 passes for 95 yards.

That was apparently enough for Eagles coach Chip Kelly as he went nickle and dime the rest of the way, willing to allow New England to get whatever they could get on the ground just to keep Brady's receivers down - a prudent choice as it turns out, as even though running backs Brandon Bolden and James White combined for 28 yards on three carries, the pass rush got to Brady.

Apparently, the halftime adjustment for New England was to abandon the running game, as for the rest of the game, the Patriots gained just 14 yards on those four lone carries. Instead of gaining the advantage by forcing Kelly to eventually commit his safeties to the box, the Patriots played right into his hands.

This contest must serve as a perfect example of what happens when the offense is unbalanced. But being balanced means something different to the Patriots than it does other teams. For the Patriots to be balanced, they run the ball just enough to make the defense respect the ground game, forcing them to play straight up in a base defense or in a variation of a big nickle.

On Sunday, they didn't even do that, and it cost them in just about every way imaginable.

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