by Michael David Smith
The Patriots' offense is the best in the league in both rushing and passing DVOA, but is one just a function of the other?
For much of the season, I thought so. The Patriots' passing offense is so phenomenal that I figured their success running the ball was mostly a residual effect of the way opposing defenses play against the pass: If you never see an eight-man front on first-and-10 because opposing safeties are more concerned about Brady-to-Moss and Brady-to-Welker, you're going to get a lot of fairly easy five-yard handoffs.
But after watching the Patriots' running game in their AFC Championship victory over the Chargers, I'm no longer so sure that the Patriots' running game is simply the beneficiary of the threat of the passing game. In Sunday's game, I saw the Patriots enjoy much of their greatest running success when the Chargers knew exactly what was coming but couldn't stop it.
Take the second-and-1 on the first play of the second quarter. The Chargers weren't thinking about the pass on that play because the Patriots didn't have any wide receivers on the field. New England had fullback Heath Evans in front of running back Laurence Maroney in the I formation, with tight ends on both sides of the line and linebacker Mike Vrabel on the field essentially as an H-back, behind the tight end on the right. As everyone who has watched the Patriots in recent years knows, the Chargers' defense had to at least respect the threat of Tom Brady throwing to Vrabel, but the Chargers lined up as if they knew a run was coming. The problem was they just couldn't stop it. The Patriots' entire offensive line got a good push. Tight end Kyle Brady and Evans sealed the outside by blocking Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman. Maroney ran to the left around Merriman, then lowered his shoulder as Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie approached. It was nothing fancy, just overpowering blocking and a good finish to the run by Maroney.
Two plays later, Maroney plowed in for a 1-yard touchdown out of the same formation, with right guard Stephen Neal getting Chargers defensive end Luis Castillo on the ground, Evans running behind Neal to clear a path and Maroney running behind Evans. Again, the Chargers didn't appear to feel a threat of a pass, but even when they were playing the run, they couldn't stop it.
I picked Cleveland's Lawrence Vickers as the fullback on my all-pro team, but I would seriously consider Evans if I were to pick the team again and include the playoffs. Evans is a very talented, very versatile player, who at times even lines up as a wide receiver. I like him a lot as a lead blocker out of the I formation, but I'd also like to see him get the ball more. He actually had the highest rushing DVOA of any of the Patriots' running backs (admittedly, by a small margin and with a small sample size), and he has a good feel for reading blocks and finding holes. Evans ran the ball twice against the Chargers, both times on third-and-1, and he picked up the first down with a couple of yards to spare both times. He could carry the ball 10 times a game and do it effectively if that's what the Patriots needed him to do.
The best thing about the Patriots' offensive linemen is the way they finish their blocks. The most impressive play an offensive lineman can make is the pancake block, where he fires off the ball and knocks the guy across the line from him flat on his back. But realistically, NFL defensive linemen just don't get knocked flat on their back often enough for pancakes to be an offensive lineman's bread-and-butter, if I may mix a couple of food-related metaphors. Much more important is for an offensive lineman to be effective even on the plays where he doesn't have such a brute strength advantage. That's really where the Patriots shine.
Take, for instance, the handoff to Maroney on first-and-10 with 8:45 left in the second quarter. The Patriots' offensive line did not overpower the Chargers' defensive line; in fact, the Chargers' defensive line clearly won the initial surge. At the time Maroney got the handoff, Chargers nose tackle Jamal Williams was already across the line of scrimmage, and Maroney didn't look like he had any room to run. But Patriots right guard Logan Mankins kept fighting after Williams got inside him, and he ultimately threw Williams to the ground. Neal also didn't get a very good push at the start of the play, but he also kept fighting and eventually knocked Castillo to the ground. Maroney was patient enough to wait for Mankins and Neal to do their jobs, and he eventually picked his way for a 5-yard gain on a play that at first looked like it had been stopped at the line of scrimmage.
In my book, Mankins is the best of the Patriots' linemen. On second-and-10 just before the two-minute warning of the first half, the Patriots came out in a shotgun, three-receiver, one-back, one-tight end formation, with running back Kevin Faulk to Brady's left in the backfield. Mankins pulled to the right and buried Chargers linebacker Matt Wilhelm, and Faulk took Brady's handoff, followed Mankins and picked up an easy 8 yards. When Mankins pulls like that, he's basically doing what a fullback does, except that he weighs 300 pounds. He's skilled enough that the Patriots can use him like a lead-blocking fullback while also having three receivers and a tight end on the field.
I thought center Dan Koppen had the weakest game as far as run blocking. On a first-and-10 on the last play of the third quarter, Koppen was matched one-on-one with Chargers nose tackle Ryon Bingham. He got a good first step but then wasn't quick enough to keep up when Bingham used a swim technique, and Bingham ended up tackling Maroney, holding him to a gain of 4 yards and preventing a big play. On one of those third-and-1 handoffs to Evans, he ran straight into Koppen, who was pushed straight back into him. Fortunately for the Patriots, Mankins, left tackle Matt Light, and tight end Kyle Brady all made excellent blocks to open up the hole that Evans ran through for the first down. Most of the time Koppen got help from either Neal or Mankins, but on the plays when he didn't, he struggled. Just as I'd consider putting Evans on my all-pro team if I had it to do over again, I'd also consider taking Koppen off.
I mentioned the solid block by Kyle Brady, and there were a number of those. Patriots coach Bill Belichick has loved Brady ever since the 1995 NFL draft, when Brady was the hot prospect out of Penn State, Belichick was the coach of the Cleveland Browns, and Belichick nearly had a coronary when the Jets drafted Brady just before the Browns were going to. Brady was once a solid receiver (he had 64 catches for 729 yards in 2000), but now he's basically an offensive tackle who lines up at tight end. And I mean that as a compliment â€“- Brady is an excellent run blocker.
We at Football Outsiders have written a lot about how a steady, consistent running game is more important than a running game that breaks a few long runs, and consistency is exactly what the Patriots have: Only 11 percent of the Patriots' rushing yards came more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, ranking just 26th in the league in that category. Still, while long runs aren't particularly important for what the Patriots, I must at least mention their longest run, a 20-yard scamper by Maroney early in the fourth quarter. That run was sprung by a great block from Neal, who simply dominated Chargers defensive end Jacques Cesaire. Cesaire is lucky the season is over, because it was the kind of play you'd really be embarrassed to watch on film with your teammates. Neal just abused him. Of course, Maroney deserves a ton of credit for the play, too. After he ran through the hole that Neal opened, he made a sweet move to juke Chargers safety Clinton Hart and gain an extra 15 yards.
But, again, that long run was the exception, not the rule. The rule was that the Patriots always picked up the yards they needed, in small, steady chunks, including picking up the first down all five times they ran the ball on third down. Overall, while it would be a convenient theory to say the Patriots' running game is so effective because their passing game keeps the defense honest, that theory sells the Patriots' running game short by a good measure. With every offense, the threat of a pass helps the run, and vice versa, but this Patriots running attack is one that can be effective on its own.