Tuesday, September 27, 2016

"Flexbone" Gives Old-School Fans Hope For Continuation Of Power Running Game

"For certain, the entire Patriots' offense has a different look and feel to it this season, and is steaming towards a huge departure from the finesse, take-what-the-defense-gives-you routine that has gotten them to five consecutive AFC Title games and won them one Super Bowl to what appears to be a return to the physicality of the millennial teams that won by punching folks in the mouth and not worrying too much about repercussions.

And that's what football is about, after all, right?  That's why these guys are decked out in all kinds of padding, helmets, cups, etc., because football is a physical sport - three yards and a cloud of dust. Despite some "innovators" trying to make it about over the top speed, it still comes down to being able to take what you want, a violent game of ground acquisition in which to be successful, an offense must be balanced in their attack." - Foxborough Free Press, August 21, 2016

Whether by design, surprise or pure perverted curiosity, the New England Patriots are about to pass the quarter pole of the 2016 National Football League season leading all of professional football in rushing yards and their "Bell Cow" power back, LeGarrette Blount leading the league in individual rushing.

LeGarrette Blount leads the league in rushing - as unlikely a six word sentence as you may ever see - the man whom his fans call "Blount Force Trauma" is currently on pace for 400 carries and 1,600 yards, leading his Patriots to what translates to 2,400 team rushing yards on the year on an absurd 580 carries.

What we are witnessing however is not the rebirth of the 1978 team that still holds the record for the most rushing yards in a season - a ridiculous 3,165 yards on 671 carries - but at this moment in time, the 55-45 ratio between run and pass feels very much like the run heavy teams of the late 1970's, led by tough young mobile quarterbacks who were fully integrated into the running game.

Of course, we are not likely to see a renaissance back to the days of Sam Cunningham, Craig James and Steve Grogan for two very important reasons. First, there were five different backs that played a central role in setting that unbreakable record, and this years' version has just Blount and whoever is covering for quarterback Tom Brady while he's serving a suspension...

...and secondly, well, we're talking about Tom Brady here.

Third-year backup Jimmy Garoppolo started the first two games of Brady's four-game suspension and rookie Jacoby Brissett started the third game while Garoppolo nursed a bad wing, but whoever starts the last game of the suspension will be more of a running threat than Brady ever was or ever will be.  Brady's game is flinging the ball around all over the place, targeting like 43 different receivers.

Just that fact alone makes the prospects of seeing this wave of unadulterated power running and negative balance in the passing game implausible, but most offensive linemen run faster than Brady's sloth-like 5.28 - which was his forty-time in the combine sixteen years and one torn ACL ago, and he hasn't gotten any faster with age - so about all Brady is worth in that capacity is his patented nose dive on 3rd and short situations.

But that's all the team has ever needed from Brady, and he has rings and trophies that speak to his success in those undertakings - but that doesn't mean that the team should discontinue or even discount what the team has been able to accomplish on the ground to start this season, and especially since the opposing defense knows what's coming, but can't stop it - at least not for sixty minutes.

Many find fault with Blount, with most of those folks having the opinion that he is an all-or-nothing type of back, meaning either he gets stuffed for no gain or he breaks off something proper - and it's true, to an extent - but the issue through the years since Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon prowled the backfield is that there has been no patience with the running game, or at least very little, and that affects how effective the running game can be...

...as the running game, if used properly, is the one entity with a football game that seems to get stronger as the game wears on, and New England appears to be able to translate that into an insurmountable advantage - fitting right in with the Patriots' version of the Erhardt-Perkins offensive philosophy that calls for the offense to "Pass to score, run to win".

Until Stevan Ridley came along a full five seasons after Dillon flamed out, there really wasn't a back that anyone felt comfortable giving the ball to more than a dozen times a game, but by that time Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick was enamoured with a little thing called the Two Tight End Offense or, as it turns out to be, the Flexbone formation.

Traditionally, the Flexbone is a variation of the old college Wishbone - only instead of having a fullback flanked by two running backs in the backfield, the Patriots' version replaces those halfbacks with tight ends and flanks each tackle with them, and the fullback becomes the power back or, given the Patriots' skill with third-down backs, a passing back...

Ordinarily, this would be more of a running formation, but with Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett being the Patriots' tight ends, the Patriots are able to line up in the formation and the defense will have no clue what's coming between a run and a pass, or which direction the play is going, because Gronkowski and Bennett are of the elite blocking variety and, coupled with their pass catching prowess, they comprise the most lethal set of tight ends in the business.

All that means is that the Patriots can have either seven offensive linemen in the running game, or up to five legitimate pass catching options in the passing game - give or take depending on picking up blitzers and such - and all without switching personnel, meaning that New England could go uptempo if need be to trap the opposing defense in mismatches.

This scenario is the sum of Belichick's two tight end dream mixed with a physical offensive line that found it's groove early and is building towards being a very good unit, pass protecting with technique and run blocking with a nastiness not see in Foxborough since Logan Mankins' heyday.

All the Patriots have to do is stick to a reasonable balance when Brady comes back, and they will have not only the most efficient offense in the league, but also one that is nearly impossible to stop.

Not being under any delusion that the volume of running plays currently in effect will continue - as 36 carries per game is a pace too invasive on the passing game with Brady under center - the way this offense has been built, anything less than 25 running plays a game would be a shame, and a waste of the talent on every level of the offense.

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