The New England Patriots offense finished the 2012 season ranked first in the NFL, averaging 34.8 points per game in the regular season, with only Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos within 5 points per game of the mighty Patriots offense. In addition, the Patriots finished first in yards per game at almost 428 yards per game and first in converting 110 3rd downs at a 49% success rate. Despite these gaudy stats, the offense sputtered in the AFC Championship Game and only scored 13 points against the stingy Baltimore Ravens defense. Despite being the best in the league in the regular season, the offense is looking for upgrades in order to improve the team’s odds to win the Super Bowl next season. Today the focus is on the rushing attack, with a look at the defense and offensive line to follow soon.
This past off-season, the pundits and talk radio talking-heads and callers wasted hours of time making a big deal about the loss of Patriots running back Benjarvus Green-Ellis. The steady, yet unspectacular, undrafted free agent had put up two seasons of fair performance as the lead back in New England. There were numerous calls to re-sign him. As he hit unrestricted free agency, the Patriots wisely let him leave to Cincinnati where he put up solid numbers at a (in the Patriots front-office’s view) high price.
In the 2011 NFL draft, the New England Patriots spent second-round and third-round draft picks on the running back position, drafting Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley. Although Ridley took playing time from Green-Ellis at running back in 2011 and was impressive, rushing for 441 yards and an 5.1 yard average; however, he lost the job back to Green-Ellis late in the season and was benched in the playoffs due to multiple fumbles. Vereen had been injured since training camp and barely set foot on the field.
In 2012, Patriots running back Stevan Ridley grabbed the job early and took advantage of Vereen again not getting on the field and was the lead back all season as he put up impressive numbers, rushing 290 times for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns in the regular season. Vereen made sporadic appearances in the offense, and flashed his high-end speed that made him a second-round pick. Though inconsistent, he flashed enough to make him a candidate to contribute in 2013.
This off-season, third-down specialist running back Danny Woodhead is an unrestricted free agent, and considering the Patriots track-record with specialists, he should either accept a team-friendly deal or pack his bags for another team. With his receiving skills and scat-back ability in a spread offense/pass-friendly league, he could quite possibly price himself out of New England. However, the plan has always likely involved Vereen stepping in for Woodhead, and if Vereen can stay healthy, he can be an upgrade over Woodhead as third-down specialist/receiving back.
The Patriots finally achieved some balance in the offense as they averaged 136.5 yards per game on the ground, good for seventh in the NFL. They also finished first in rushing touchdowns with 25 and number one in first downs gained on the ground with 151. While Ridley was a huge part of those numbers, rookie undrafted free agent Brandon Bolden flashed a running style that, like Ridley, was decisive and explosive. Bolden derailed his season by being suspended for PED use, but prior to that was carving a role in the offense including a 137 yard rushing performance against Buffalo.
Despite being the unquestioned lead running back, Stevan Ridley was only on the field for about 45% of the offensive snaps (all playing time stats as charted by ESPN Boston). Shane Vereen an Brandon Bolden combined for only 20% of the offensive snaps, which led third-down specialist running back Danny Woodhead to take almost 35% of the snaps during the 2012 season, far more than the offense was drawn up in the off-season. However, even if the Patriots are unable to retain Woodhead, with Ridley, Vereen and Bolden, the Patriots have three quality, low-cost, and young running backs to build around.
The next step in the offensive evolution of the Patriots is to continue to grow the running game. Certainly this ties into the offensive line and passing attack, but the Patriots need to get the running game to a position where they can run the ball when the defense knows Ridley or Bolden is coming down-field into the mouth of their eight-man front and still pick up three or four yard chunks consistently in order to grind out a crucial first down. One way to do this is to integrate a true fullback.
The Patriots need a real fullback/H-back to allow the team to run the ball and grind out yards in some sort of two-back/two-tight end set. As the fullback position has disappeared in the past ten years from the modern NFL offense, it would stand to reason that thinking outside the box and re-integrating the position would jump-start the rushing game. Someone who is capable of blocking and receiving is a must, as the offense requires players with flexibility to fill multiple roles.
The Patriots had brought in some fullbacks in training camp, leading to speculation that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels may emphasize the position. A big, pass-catching fullback could be in plans for the Patriots in 2013 to keep the offense flexible and prevent injuries from slowing down the multi-threat rushing and passing offense.
The Patriots have options in their offense that other teams may not have available, due to the presence of their multi-threat tight ends. With a two back/two wide receiver/one back offensive set, the Patriots need to be able to run against the nickel defense, and have the running back available to contribute to the passing game against a base defense. This was the offensive philosophy going into the season before injuries and lack of multi-threat depth at tight end derailed the dual rushing/passing threat lineup: create a mismatch with their defense, whether base or nickel and attack whatever the defense gives them. Improving the rushing offense next season will allow the offense to continue to evolve.