Saturday, January 9, 2016

Prelude To A Championship, Part IV - White, Jackson Integral Part Of Patriots Super Bowl Run

The New England Patriots running game has been missing in action for, well, the majority of the season, ranking 30th in yards from scrimmage and an equally pathetic 29th in yards per carry.

Compounding the issue is a combination of injuries that have ravaged the Patriots' offense down to its very core, and the fact that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has called upon the running game for the least amount of times in the 16 year dynastic run of New England under Bill Belichick, a number good for just 25th in the NFL.

None of the six teams with less carries than the Patriots even came close to making the playoffs, and only one other team - the Pittsburgh Steelers - finished the season in the bottom half of the league in rushing attempts and still made the post-season. On the flip-side, 10 of the 12 playoff teams made the top half of the league in carries, and six of the top 10 rushing teams are preparing for post-season play.

Needless to say, the Patriots and Steelers and the exception to the rule, mostly because of their prolific passing attacks - but even that has been missing lately for New England, and is perhaps the primary reason why the running game has been all but non-existent.

Even so, lead back LeGarrette Blount was actually on pace for a 900 yard season before he went down with a bum hip against the Texans in week 14, averaging a robust 4.3 yards per carry, but his numbers paled in comparison with the yards from scrimmage provided by scatback Dion Lewis, who gained 622 yards from scrimmage in just seven games before tearing his ACL against the Washington Redskins in week 9.

Of course, over half of Lewis' yardage came from the short passing game, running flat out patterns where he utilized his absurd,video game-quality elusiveness to make the first man miss in the flat in addition to perfectly executed wheel routes - and as those smarter than me are fond of saying, the Patriots short passing game is an extension of their running game and therefore Lewis was on pace for a 1400 yard season.

On paper, the Patriots had a certified one-two punch in their backfield up until Lewis went down, and still a certified juggernaut for an offense until receiver Julian Edelman suffered a broken bone in his foot the following week against the New York Giants setting off a chain of events that saw the Patriots drop four of their final six games.

Lewis is not coming back this season, but perhaps his knee injury has a silver lining for New England as his absence has made it possible for sophomore James White to blossom into a legitimate passing back.

Despite getting next to no action backing up Lewis - understandable given the electric talent of Lewis - White has established himself as the Patriots' "sub back", as Belichick calls him, gaining 354 yards from scrimmage in the passing game and scoring all six of his touchdowns since Lewis hit the skids and, in fact, is second on the team in both receptions and receiving yards to tight end Rob Gronkowski...

...somewhat amazing in that most of his snaps he's been kept in the backfield to help protect Brady by picking up the relentless blitzers, curling out into the pattern only when the blitz doesn't come and on the occasion when his number is called on the jailbreak or on the designed wheel route as the hot read - and all of this with both Edelman and Danny Amendola on the shelf, no power running game at all and an offensive line that has been overwhelmed by it all.

So just imagine what the second-year back from Wisconsin should be able to accomplish with both Edelman and Amendola making the pass catching corps complete and nasty, and now that newly acquired power back Steven Jackson has had nearly a month in the Patriots' system to pick up the play book and getting in as close to football shape as he's going to get.

The move to pick up Jackson was genius by Belichick - well part genius and part being the only team desperate enough to give the 32 year old former Ram and Falcon a roster spot - but it is just this kind of low-risk, high-reward personnel move that Belichick has made a career out of as a general manager. And the Patriots may be the only team in the NFL that could utilize everything that Jackson has left.

At 6' 2" and 240 pounds, Jackson is one of the biggest backs the Patriots have ever employed and is, in fact, the size of a "Move" type tight end, with prototypical speed for the position.

New England used their season-ending loss to Miami as an opportunity to get Jackson some work, as he hadn't played a down of football since the end of last season, had no training camp and had no preseason games. So it is a bit of a stretch to really expect him to tear it up on the field, particularly behind an offensive line that has been under siege from the injury bug since midseason.

Of course, having Edelman and Amendola back in the mix at receiver will help the power running game because it brings back Brady's ability to get the ball out of his hand quickly, the trickle down effect being two-fold: first, the defense can't stack the box and overwhelm the offensive line because they will need nickle and dime backs to cover the Patriots' weapons in the pattern...

...which means that the line will not have so many bodies to move out of the way, meaning more and bigger running lanes for Jackson. Secondly, the ability to establish the running game under such circumstances invokes the play action, which also helps the offensive linemen due to the fact that the defense will have to respect the run, and the play fake will have a greater impact on the pass rushers who will have to delay their rush for a split-second, enough for Brady to get rid of the ball.

That said, the biggest key for this offense will be to not leave themselves with third and long situations, as that makes the play calling more predictable and allows the pass rushers to pin their ears back and go after Brady - and the backs will play a huge part in that type of game plan.

That is also why having the versatile Jackson up to speed and in football shape is so essential. As mentioned, Jackson has the size and the speed of a Move-type tight end, and is an excellent pass catcher, as his 460 receptions and nearly 4700 yards over 11 years will attest so don't be surprised to see Jackson lined up in the slot or even split wide on occasion to take advantage of mismatches.

That goes for White as well, as we have already witnessed what the kid can do - and that will obviously feed into next season, when he and Lewis will form one of the scariest two-back tandems in the National Football League, Lewis with his cartoonish elusiveness and White with his north-south approach that wastes very little movement...

...but that is a discussion for another time. Right now the Patriots are gearing up for a blitzkrieg through the playoffs, and getting White, Jackson and all-purpose back Brandon Bolden involved in an offense that is nearing full health will make said offense that much more dangerous.

Next: How the offensive line will improve with health at the "skill" positions...

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