Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Patriots Stand Pat On Running Backs In Draft, But Good Core Remains

Could the New England Patriots actually go into the 2017 season with, essentially, the same cast of running backs that produced a dismal 1404 rushing yards last season?

That 1404 rushing yards was good - or bad, depending on your dialect - for thirtieth out of thirty-two teams, but if it weren't for injuries, the Patriots' rushing numbers would certainly be a lot higher than what it was - and advanced statistics show that they weren't as bad as the initial numbers would seem to indicate.

Sparked by the video game-like elusiveness of passing back Dion Lewis and the sluggish but powerful style of the brutish LeGarrette Blount as a part-time bell-cow, the Patriots had the makings of a decent rushing game - not top of the league type stuff by any means, but enough to keep balance in the attack and have confidence closing out games.

In fact, through the first five games of the season, Lewis and Blount had amassed 486 yards on the ground, with Lewis contributing another 292 through the air as a live-wire dual threat like the franchise hadn't seen in over a decade. Lewis was held out of a week seven matchup with the Jets and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels subsequently abandoned the running game, but still managed enough offense for a narrow win...

...but after a fantastic game the following week against Miami (5 carries for 19 yards and six catches for 96), Lewis saw his season end the next week against Washington, tearing his ACL.

That was the beginning of the end for the Patriots' offense.

The following week, wide receiver Julian Edelman suffered a broken metatarsal in his left foot, the second hit in as many weeks to the Patriots' passing attack - and thus began a cruel string of injuries that left the "skill" positions smoldering ruins.

With Lewis gone for the season and Edelman on the shelf until the playoffs, receiver Danny Amendola was the next to have a seat, suffering a knee sprain the following week against the Bills, then tight end Rob Gronkowski went down the week after that in Denver - then the injury bug took a week off before returning with a vengeance, taking lead back Blount for the season with a bum hip.

That's five core "skill position" players going down in the space of six weeks, reducing the New England offense to a literal shell of itself.  So it should come as no surprise that the Patriots took a nose-dive, losing four of the final six games, Blount's injury the final straw to an offense that generated only 15 points per game down the stretch after he went down.

Edelman and Gronkowski were back for the playoffs and provided some plays, but with the running game in tatters, McDaniels crew could manage only 45 points in the playoffs as he again abandoned the ground game, this time because there just wasn't anything left to work with but untested depth and a relic free agent who hadn't seen action in nearly a year.

Attempting to run the ball just seven times in a divisional round win over Kansas City and fourteen in a loss to Denver in the AFC Championship game is testament to McDaniels' lack of confidence in both what was left of his running game, as well as his completely overwhelmed offensive line.

In short, the Patriots' offensive woes down the stretch and in the playoffs were not a matter of talent, nor lack thereof, it was simply a matter of one devastating injury after another sapping the explosiveness from the offense, leaving quarterback Tom Brady a handful of unproven depth players who, try as they might, were no match for any defense.

The only way that the Patriots could have survived that onslaught of injuries was for their depth to have performed better than they did overall, though by the time Blount was lost for the season, there wasn't a team in the NFL that was scared of the Patriots' offense, because once any semblance of a running game disappeared, all anyone had to to do was load up the pass rush to come after Brady...

...and even when Gronkowski was back, the opposition doubled him up and left the pass catching depth single covered and concentrated on getting to Brady before he had a chance to make his reads.

Many blamed the offensive line for the subsequent beatings that Brady took, but the fact of the matter is that they were overwhelmed by defenses that knew the Patriots couldn't run the ball with any authority, nor could they field a healthy passing catching corps - it was Brady behind an offensive line trying to hold back a tsunami, and the result was the worst eight game stretch in Belichick's 15 year tenure.

And still, Brady, Belichick and the Patriots came within two points of going to the Super Bowl.

Now, had the injury bug started biting any earlier than it did, New England may not have even made the playoffs - so with a harsh lesson learned, why did the Patriots not select a young bell-cow running back in the 2016 Draft?

Many Patriots' fans are either scratching or shaking their heads over this one, and Belichick's response to being questioned about not drafting a back, "You can't control what you can't control", left many with more questions than they had before.

Did that mean he had a back in mind and he was taken before he could fall to number 60 overall, where the Patriots would be making their first pick, or is he referring to the fact that his first rounder was taken away by the league and he was left without a reasonable opportunity to get the back he wanted, or was he just blowing off the reporter?

Probably, it is a combination of all of the above, but even that doesn't change the fact that Belichick added only passing back Donald Brown to the kennel in free agency - a kennel that still includes Blount and Lewis, and also James White, Brandon Bolden, Tyler Gaffney and Joey Iosefa - then signed only former running back-turned-wide receiver D.J. Foster out of Arizona State as a priority free agent after he went undrafted.

Obviously, Belichick has trust in his current group of greyhounds, and has every reason to - given that his running game ranked second in the NFL in Adjusted Line Yards, which gives a true assessment of the efficiency of a team's running game.

Lead back Blount was ranked 6th out of 50 running backs with one hundred carries or more in success rate, which is descriptive of his consistency as measured by successful running plays, success being determined as to whether he gained 40% of the team's need for a first down on first down, gaining 60% of the team's remaining yards on second down, and 100% of the remaining yards on third down...

...his 52% success rate in these situations making him a better bet to gain the yardage needed than just about any "Elite" back you could think of or name, and the fact that passing back Dion Lewis was also ranked #6 for backs with less than 100 carries speaks to the consistency of the running game, so long as it has the players to field.

As a team, the Patriots ranked second in the entire NFL in total line yards, which identifies the success rate of running plays between losing up to five yards and gaining up to five yards on each play.  The Patriots are a robust 4.18 in this category - second only to the Arizona Cardinals - a large degree of their success based upon the fact that they had the lowest "stuff" percentage in the league, with only 16% of their running plays losing yardage.

These metrics show that had the Patriots featured the running game to an acceptable balance while their backs were healthy, especially with their pass catching corps missing integral pieces, they could have dictated terms to the opposing defenses, forcing them to defend the entire field and keeping the pass rush off of Brady

Needless to say, a few things need to be addressed to ensure that the running game actually complements the passing game, instead of just making token appearances.

First and foremost, the need for a running game has never been more critical, so it is time for Josh McDaniels' Flying Circus to come back a little closer to earth.  With the best and most dangerous tight end combination in the league featuring two behemoths who can run block just as well as they can catch and run, the proper thing to do would be to run a lot of 12 or 22 Personnel as their primary package.

The 12 Personnel package (1 running back, 2 tight ends, 2 wide receivers) should be the predominant package that will facilitate the uptempo game that New England is so good at, because with the overall skill set of the top playmakers, Brady could call a running play off tackle or right up the gut with a tight end pulling for a wham block, and if he sees a mismatch to take advantage of, he can go five wide simply by barking out one word.

The threat of a running game in this package is such that the defense would have to respect it, while making sure that they have the players on the field to ensure coverage in the patterns - same with 22 Personnel (2 backs, 2 tight ends and 1 receiver) as the Patriots have three excellent passing backs that they could rotate in and out, two of whom have had a little success running the ball out of such formations.

In other words, with health on their side, the running game needs to balance out the passing game, and while the meaning of balance to the Patriots is running the ball just enough to offset the passing game and forcing the defense to defend the entire field, they need to establish the run early and keep with it through out the game, not abandon it for fireworks in the second half - all that does is allow the opposing pass rush to load up and overwhelm the line, and we all saw how well that works.

Secondly, a token running game is worse than not having one at all.  If you are throwing 80% of the time out of the 12 or 22, you are wearing out your offensive linemen.

It takes twice as much energy for a 300-plus pound man to back peddle, anchor and then absorb the initial punch of a pass rusher than it does for him to drive forward and deliver the initial punch to the defensive lineman.  With the threat of a running game, the play action is more effective and it allows the linemen to conserve their energy by having an extra split second to anchor themselves and deliver the initial punch once the pass rusher decides the play call is a pass.

The way that McDaniels used the running game last season was a primary reason for the Patriots' lack of success on offense down the stretch, including the absolutely brutal beating Brady took - and while the performance of the running game in the playoffs had more to do with simply not having the players, he really didn't even try to establish one, either.

This has to change.  No amount of new blood infused into the backfield is going to fix the offense when the person calling the shots isn't going to use them, and we've also shown that the players that the Patriots already have are effective enough, if given that opportunity.

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