David Bergman/SI
David Bergman/SI

Who Needs To Pass? The Pats Are Running With It

Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and crew have flipped the script recently, running the ball almost 50 percent more than they throw it. Will that trend continue in the AFC title game at Denver? Doing so might change their recent playoff fortunes

By
Greg A. Bedard
· More from Greg·

Despite having quarterback Tom Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, the architect of the record-breaking 2007 passing attack, the Patriots rumbled their way to the AFC Championship Game with 234 rushing yards on 46 carries and six touchdowns in Saturday’s victory over the Colts.

It felt like a throwback game for the Patriots and coach Bill Belichick. They won their three Super Bowl titles in 2001, ’03 and ‘04 with a dominating defense and a physical ground game, running the ball 47.3, 45.4 and 50.6 percent of the time during the regular season. In their final two games of the regular season against the Ravens and Bills, and the divisional win over the Colts, the Patriots ran the ball on 60.6 percent of their snaps for 643 yards and 5.2 yards per carry. In the 14 games prior, the Patriots ran on just 39 percent of the snaps.

Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount has looked like Antowain Smith (’01 and ’03) and Corey Dillon (’04) rolled into one with 431 yards on 64 carries (6.7 average) and eight touchdowns in the past three games, including the regular season.

That is the way Belichick won his other two Super Bowl rings as defensive coordinator of the Giants. New York rushed 51.9 percent of the time in 1986, and 55.9 percent in 1990.

Has Belichick decided the old-school formula stands a better chance than the pass-happy one to win a title? He, of course, isn’t telling.

“We like to win,” Belichick said on Saturday night. “So, whatever we need to do to win really is good with me. Win running, win throwing, win shutting them out, win outscoring them, win in the kicking game—whatever it takes. We just have to find a way to do it this time of year. Every team we play is good. Every game is bigger than the next. We just have to try to find some way to come out on top next week. That’s really all it is.”

Will the Patriots ride the ground-and-pound approach in an effort to beat the Broncos and reach a sixth Super Bowl under Belichick? Only he and McDaniels know, obviously. There’s circumstantial evidence to suggest the Patriots, who are truly a game-by-game, opponent-specific, game-plan offense, will go more to the pass in Denver.

For one, the Broncos, who finished ninth in run defense according to FootballOutsiders.com, are the best run defense they’ve played of late. The Ravens (10th), Bills (19th) and Colts (22nd) were all rated lower. Even though losing defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson hurt the Broncos’ interior run defense, they held the Chargers’ running backs, who averaged 4.1 yards on 41 attempts in a Dec. 12 win at Denver, to a 3.4 average on 15 carries Sunday. Tackles Terrance Knighton, Malik Jackson and Sylvester Williams, end Robert Ayers and linebacker Nate Irving all played strong against the run the second time around against San Diego.

The last time the Patriots and Broncos played each other, the Pats were held to just 3.7 YPC, with Shane Vereen (pictured) and LeGarrette Blount combining for 44 rushing yards. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
The last time the Patriots and Broncos played each other, the Pats were held to just 3.7 YPC, with Shane Vereen (pictured) and LeGarrette Blount combining for 44 rushing yards. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

The Broncos are much more susceptible to the pass (ranked 21st by Football Outsiders), and now are playing without their best pass rusher, Von Miller, and a valuable cornerback in Chris Harris. When Harris was injured against the Chargers, quarterback Philip Rivers got hot and brought San Diego back in the game. Quentin Jammer struggled as a replacement. Jammer, rookie Kayvon Webster or Tony Carter are all options that Brady could look to target.

And in each of their past three victories, the Patriots got out to big halftime leads, which are more conducive to running: 17-0 (Baltimore), 16-3 (Buffalo) and 21-7 (Indianapolis). The Patriots also played the Bills and Colts in the rain, when it’s harder to throw the ball, making the run seemed like a logical option. The forecast for Sunday in Denver: around 50 degrees and little wind, which could make both teams eager to throw the ball.

Looking for a reason why the Patriots should stay on the ground? Their three most recent playoff losses have come, in large part, because they haven’t run the ball effectively enough.

The Jets (’10), Giants (’11) and Ravens (’12) played their base defense a total of 14 of 195 total snaps (7.2 percent) when they held the Patriots to 21 (garbage-time touchdown included), 17 and 13 points, respectively. The rest was nickel or dime defense with extra defensive backs. Basically, the defenses dared the Patriots to forego their passing attack and run the ball.

The Patriots attempted to run the ball, but couldn’t do it effectively enough to pull the defenses out of playing coverage. They averaged 3.5 yards per attempt in the first half of those games. Since the defenses felt no need to drop a safety down into the box—or swap a linebacker for a defensive back—to help against the run, Brady had a tough time finding players open. He completed 60 percent of his passes in those losses and was knocked around by the pass rush, which had time to get there.

If the Patriots stick with the new-found run game, they might be able to change their recent playoff fortunes.

Colts safety LaRon Landry, who faced high-flying Patriots offenses as a member of the Jets and Redskins, thinks the renewed emphasis of the rushing attack makes the Patriots that much harder to defend.

“Oh yeah, they’ve got a great one-two punch,” Landry said. “They come with the pass, the crossing routes, the stacks, and then they hand the ball off. You flex the running backs out and cause mismatches. They had a good game plan. They keep running the ball like that, it makes it real hard on a defense.” 

Go to Page 2 to read my Purple-Chip Report on the Divisional slate of games.

1 2NEXT VIEW AS A SINGLE PAGE
More from The MMQB
TAGS:
17 comments
rtrepsas
rtrepsas

Greg,  excellent article, as are all the comments below. One quibble: It's "Devin", not "Devon" McCourty. You oughta know better, being the former Boston Globe NFL writer.

skanee00
skanee00

With quarterbacks getting 50 plus TD passes per year and passing records dropping like flies, I wonder if the defenseless receiver rule has made passing the ball too easy.  It's getting too much like the arena league and the value of a touchdown pass has been cheapened.  I propose dumping the five yard bump rule and returning to the ten yard rule that existed in the 1970's.  That might make football more of a running game again, but the Patriots have shown that can be exciting too.

tarheelfan59
tarheelfan59

Great comments by all but I picked up on the Pats theme. As a diehard Pats fan Peyton still scares the heck out of me each and every time they play. I'm never happy until the clock is at 00:00 and the Pats are leading. That's when you know you've won against Peyton. Yes he throws his share of picks against the Pats but the man is fearless and will keep slinging it until the clock is gone. That's what makes him so dangerous, he will never quit. I've been very impressed with the Pats run game as of late and feel just as some have here in this post that the reason Denver is #9 in run defense is because just about every team they have played is down 14 points by the 2nd qtr. and turn to the pass. Its not hard to be ranked #9 when the team fore goes the run and ends up with less than 15 rushing attempts. Bottomline, if the Pats can run the ball for 200 yards, Peyton will have less chances to beat them and may panic with his well known interceptions.  

westcoastbias
westcoastbias

Perhaps a minor point, but I saw Weddle get run over on a Broncos TD when he was in perfect position, and the only guy who could/should have stopped the play.  He's a safety - he's gotta tackle.  He didn't.  Didn't meet my expectations.

Ocean_State_Patriots_Fan
Ocean_State_Patriots_Fan

I’m far less concerned about Brady & Co. vs. the Broncos’ defense, and much more concerned about Peyton & Co. vs. the Pats’ defense. By now, New England defense should be smart enough to ignore Peyton’s pre-snap act.(It never ceases to amaze me how some fans—not to mention some NFL defenders—get caught up with his theatrics—all the hand signals, body motions, walking side to side on the line, etc.While some of his audibles are undoubtedly legit—a “hot read,” for example, I suspect many of his gyrations have no purpose other than perhaps to get a defense to simply show its hand.)

Speaking of actors, Anthony Hopkins once played a trivia-minded billionaire in the 1997 film, “The Edge.”In an effort to stump him, an Alaskan lodge owner shows him a wooden oar paddle with artwork depicting a black panther on one side, and a rabbit, his prey, calmly smoking a pipe on the other side.The lodge owner asks why the rabbit is unafraid, and Hopkins’ character, referencing the Cree Indian symbol/motif, correctly answers that it’s because the rabbit is “smarter than the panther.”If the Patriots’ defense is smarter, then they’ll trick Peyton by not trying to trick him at all.In other words, they’ll be less concerned with disguising coverages, and more concerned with disrupting Peyton’s TIMING by jamming his wide receivers and tight ends.If the Pats execute well on that, then the team can smoke its pipe on the journey to MetLife Stadium.If not, then Peyton will eat them alive, making New England’s new-found running game moot.

KevinDoucette
KevinDoucette

Denver was great against the run because nobody ran against them. It was the same for the Patriots back when they had Moss and were racking up huge amounts of points. Everyone had to pass as they were always behind. It doesn't really mean they're great against the run. Of course it doesn't mean they're bad against the run either. All it means is that people didn't run against them.

JohnFerguson
JohnFerguson

New England has a huge offensive line; originally to protect Brady.  They have only an average receiver corp.  It makes sense to run the ball when you have a back like Blount.  You reduce the time that the average defense spends on the field and takes at least one and possibly two possessions away from the opponent.  It's a workable strategy because most teams have structured their defense to defend against the pass.

bserious
bserious

@psychsportsI don't know if you care, but I haven't and never will visit your site, due to the fact that you're always annoyingly spamming comments sections, looking for free advertising.

UnishowponyWherebeef
UnishowponyWherebeef

@Ocean_State_Patriots_Fan 


I remember that movie. But you explained the scene differently from what I remember. It's Alec Baldwin who takes down the oar, shows Perkins one side and asks him to guess what's on the other side. Which, after a few moments of contemplation, Perkins does to perfection (a rabbit smoking a pipe).


As I watched it, I thought that that scene had to be the dumbest, most unbelievable, worst written scene in the history of Hollywood films. Completely absurd and laughable.


I still feel that way today.


I won't make any predictions concerning the Pats-Broncos game but I do hope that the Pats win...

westcoastbias
westcoastbias

@Reedster2185 Good analysis as far as it goes.  Missing is the part where NE gets pressure on Manning.  Both teams are injured/flawed in part.  Both teams can run on the other (esp. with Wilfork gone).  For me, game goes to the Broncos with home field crowd & altitude advantages.  Could be a classic.

A1
A1

@Reedster2185 Couldn't have said it better myself, although I still believe that any moment now the bubble gum and tape holding the Patriot offense and defense together will let go.  I think PM has more to exploit in the Patriots than the Patriots have in the Broncos!

UnishowponyWherebeef
UnishowponyWherebeef

@KevinDoucette That's exactly what I was thinking. Same as the Pats in 2007.


Then again... Bedard claims that Denver's run defense is great (9th vs run). He then points out that the Pats ran over the Ravens in Week 16. The Ravens are ranked 10th vs run.


I don't get it...

ThayneEgbert
ThayneEgbert

@KevinDoucette  If they aren't very good than Seattle isn't either.  They have almost the exact same stats.  Denver had 422 rushing attempts against and Seattle had 420.  They both gave up the same amount of yards.  They are tied for 7th for lowest avg/attempt.   

mvd
mvd

@UnishowponyWherebeef@KevinDoucetteIts easy to co-relate the 2 stats between Denver at #9 and Ravens at #10.  Pats ran over / destroyed the Ravens with the new found running game.  Denver looks good at #9 only because teams did not run against them, hence they cannot be all that better then the Ravens.  Pats running game will be the real test for Denver as this is their opportunity to show why they are ranked at #9.  Since Pats destroyed #10 Ravens with the running game, they should have no problem running against Denver, may not be a blow out like Ravens, but Pats dont need a blow out to win.  The play action comes into play with the missing CB Harris and Pats have thrown well against them in the last game and with Von Miller out as well, the passing game for Pats should be better than what they did against the Colts.  OK, Gronk is gone but so are Miller and Harris.  PATs running game will put the Denver run defense where it belongs, in the upper 20s, not like #9.  Pats have 4 RBs with Vereen doubling as receiver as well on 3rd downs, so the climate wont come into play as they rotate them as needed.  They also showed last week that they dont abondon the run just because they got stuffed a few times.  The 3-4 yard gains in first 3 quarters become 10+ yard gains in 4th quarter as defense tires and with Brady picking them apart with the play action, and Peyton's history of throwing picks against the Pats at most critical times, it all points to a Pats win.  They can then take the same game plan against Seattle or San Francisco and stuff them too since it will be a cold winter night in NJ and if any team is equipped to win in cold, its the Pats.

Email Us

Talkback@TheMMQB.com

Newsletter

Our Team