New England Patriots on Paper: The Mighty Morphin' Power Runners
The New England Patriots are a game plan specific team, devising an attack custom fit to take advantage of their superiority in one area while masking or even eliminating deficiencies in others - and it's worked out pretty well so far.
The lone variable that makes or breaks the game plan is the human element, the tendency we humans have for becoming impatient in favor of instant gratification - and the Patriots have fallen victim to this phenomenon a couple of times this season. But on Sunday evening on the football field at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots didn't fall for the temptations.
No, they just had quarterback Tom Brady taking snaps from under center, executing a textbook pirouette, sticking the football in the gut of LeGarrette Blount. Next series, same execution, but a different gut - this time Stevan Ridley.
The Patriots run the four-minute offense as well, if not better, than any team in the National Football League - so it's inconceivable that they have turned a blind eye to the thing at times this season, but it's not too late to recognize how much more versatile and unpredictable it makes the New England offensive assault when Brady is under center.
Time was, Brady was more unpredictable in the shotgun with his receivers all over God's green earth in the formation, taking all of the defensive backs out to the wings and leaving the box thin and exposed for the trap draw - but that was before Brady started running out of tight ends and wide receivers and before offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels finally recognized LeGarrette Blount as a legitimate power back.
It's been around this whole time, the power running game that spurs the four minute offense, and with almost an entire season as a sample size, both the eyeball test and the numbers overwhelmingly suggest that the Patriots as a whole are a better team when running the ball down the opposing defense's collective throat.
And it's pretty consistent, too - doesn't matter who's playing on the other side, doesn't matter where they rank in stopping the run, 4.2 yards per carry is where it always seems to add up to, the only variable being the afore mentioned human element on the sidelines that controls how many times Brady turns and hands the ball to Blount or Ridley.
And because of the injuries, because of the turnover, because they really have no choice, the Patriots have evolved into a power running team, and don't be surprised if they ride the legs of Blount and Ridley all the way to the title - because if there's one thing the Patriots have proven this season, it's that they can morph into just about anything they need to be in order to win.
Just call them the Mighty Morphin' Power Runners.
"I’ve always been a physical guy, I’ve always been one of the bigger guys,” Blount said recently of his syrup-on-waffles running style that's impossible to stop once it gets flowing “I’m not going to let somebody just smack me. I’m not going to shy away from contact, and a lot of times I usually break the tackle.”
Coach Bill Belichick echoed Blount's comments after Sunday's season-ending win, though uncharacteristically throwing a little extra mustard on his comments.
"I think a lot of it just gets down to fundamentals: body lean, and just good fundamentals of running including ball protection, body lean, trying to keep the tacklers from getting to your legs and keeping those moving, playing with a low center of gravity and good forward body lean and ball security."
Continuing, Belichick set an ominous tone for their playoff opponents, all of whom will have to deal with the Patriots' power running game in potentially bad weather:
"He’s a hard guy to tackle in good conditions but when everything is wet – when he’s wet, when the tacklers are all wet and they can’t grab onto anything – tackling can be very challenging those conditions. Not so much because of the footing, although that’s part of it, but the actual tackling sometimes is like trying to tackle, hold onto something that’s all greased up. It’s just hard to get a grip on it.
In contrast, Ridley is pure electric hell in the hole and relies on his initial burst for his momentum. With his upright running style Ridley is not going to run many folks over and he's going to take some wicked shots, and though he could eliminate the wear and tear on his body by initiating the contact and trying to bowl tacklers over, he still manages over four yards per carry.
Brady under center isn't necessarily a new thing, but the larger volume of snaps he's taking at the line of scrimmage as opposed to shotgun snaps has become the status quo since All Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski went down for the season in week 14 against the Cleveland Browns...
...and also since McDaniels figured out that it's easier to replace what Gronkowski brought to the field with a 250 pound battering ram than flinging passes to his stable of munchkins who, because the running game wasn't the focus, were getting absolutely mugged by defensive backs.
In the first game that Gronkowski missed against the Miami Dolphins, Brady threw the ball 55 times, completing 34 and taking a brutal beating in the process. In the two games since - against the Ravens and Bills - Brady has thrown 50 passes total, completing 28 for less than 300 yards.
By comparison, he has turned and handed the ball to his capable power backs 77 times for a whopping 414 yards and four touchdowns and two decisive wins to close out the season - the workhorse, of course, has been Blount who with his ridiculous performance on Sunday left him just one yard shy of Ridley's total rushing yards on the season.
That's right, between the two the Patriots have nearly 1600 yards and 14 touchdowns in the set behind Brady, and God only knows what that total might have been had the team not abandoned the run at times during the season, and only he knows how much better their record would have been.
But that doesn't matter - what does matter is that this team has finally found it's identity, and it's going to be damned tough for anyone to come into Foxborough and stop New England's running game, and the extra safety in the box that teams are going to have to employ to keep the damage to a minimum is only going to give the munchkins a little more room to operate in the pass pattern...
...and not just in Foxborough, for if the Patriots end up going to Denver to play in the AFC Championship game - well - football is football, and the running game is the most fundamental of concepts. The team that does it best controls the clock, controls field position, controls everything.
And there's not a better power running team in the playoffs than what the Patriots bring. That is what they have morphed into, and when the passing game is used to compliment the running game instead of the other way around, that is a recipe for championship football.