The New England Patriots have become one of the most difficult offenses to prepare for in the NFL. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is effective at devising game plans based upon the matchup and personnel healthy enough to play that week. The Patriots offense going into the playoffs is very different from the one that started the season. In fact, it is also very different from the one that put up big passing yards after the bye week. This is the third distinct phase of the offense as they have now moved to a power running offense reminiscent of the Corey Dillon era Patriots teams.
The 2013 NFL season was a challenge for New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels as the two-tight end offense of 2012 was decimated in the offseason by surgeries and an off-field arrest. Even when top tight end Rob Gronkowski returned to action, he soon suffered another devastating injury to end his season and take away the offense’s most dynamic weapon.
Without tight end Rob Gronkowski the New England Patriots not only were missing a key component of the passing game, but also a huge cog in the running game. At 6-6 and 265 pounds, Gronkowski was a big part of the run blocking prowess of the offense. Without him, in addition to losing the mismatch in the passing game, the Patriots offense has to substitute Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan, neither of whom are as effective run blockers as Gronkowski.
In the absence of Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots offensive game plans have leaned heavily on the running game. Some games, the running game was still reduced as the team fell behind and was forced to spread the field and throw the ball to catch-up. In November and December for five straight games the Patriots were forced to come from behind leaning on quarterback Tom Brady and the passing game. While ultimately losing to Carolina and Miami with chances to win on the last drive of the game, the Patriots passing game thrived in the absence of a consistent running game.
Purely based on year-end total statistics the Patriots offense looked balanced in 2013 as they finished tenth in average passing yards per game and ninth in average rushing yards per game. A closer examination instead shows that New England has gone through an evolution on offense in three distinct phases. First, the wide receiver centric pre-Rob Gronkowski offense; second, the Rob Gronkowski heavy two tight-end offense; and finally the post-Gronkowski two-wide receiver heavy sets used against Baltimore and Buffalo.
In phase one, the inconsistency in the passing game stood out. Quarterback Tom Brady only threw for 250 or more yards in only two of six games before tight end Rob Gronkowski returned to the offense. The running game was inconsistent as the New York Jets and Cincinnati Bengals shut down the running game completely. Against the Jets, running backs Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount combined for 20 rushes for 51 yards while against Cincinnati Ridley missed the game due to injury and the Patriots only rushed 18 times while throwing 38 times.
Due to injuries to Gronkowski, wide receiver Danny Amendola, and running back Shane Vereen the Patriots offense was dependant upon rookie wide receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson to make plays downfield. Slot receiver Julien Edelman became the Patriots only consistent receiver in each week due to injuries with the other receivers around him.
Quarterback Tom Brady was visibly frustrated with the growing pains and the offense was inconsistent. Both LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley lost fumbles in this time as well and the offense struggled on third down with Brandon Bolden clearly uncomfortable replacing Shane Vereen in that role (backup Leon Washington was injured most of the first half of the season before being released after making little to no impact).
In phase two with Rob Gronkowski in the offense, the Patriots passing game took flight. After initial struggles against the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins as Gronkowski got his feet wet in what was basically his preseason. In the five remaining games through his next injury, quarterback Tom Brady put up his best numbers of the season as the passing offense averaged 356.4 yards per game and the offense scored an average of 34 points per game during that five game stretch.
With the passing game operating at a high level the running game looked more like the 2012 version with the pass setting up the run. After continued fumbling issues by Stevan Ridley, running back LeGarrette Blount began taking more and more snaps culminating with Ridley being a healthy scratch against Houston. With third down/passing running back Shane Vereen back on the field returning from injury, he provided a huge boost alongside Gronkowski in the passing game, particularly extending drives on third down.
In phase three the Patriots offense was once again without Rob Gronkowski after injuring his knee against Cleveland. This time, both rookie wide receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson were out or limited by injuries. The outside passing game was nearly non-existent as the Patriots leaned on their running game and wide receiver Julien Edelman. Against Baltimore and Buffalo the Patriots were fortunate to be able to play with a lead and lean heavily on their running backs. The Patriots had re-introduced Stevan Ridley into the mix, but LeGarrette Blount clearly had taken over as the lead back.
The Patriots enter the playoffs with a three-headed beast at running back. A healthy Shane Vereen provides a valuable assist to the passing game which continues to lean on Julien Edelman. Having another option on third down is necessary for quarterback Tom Brady to extend drives and not only score points but keep opposing offenses on the sidelines in the playoffs.
LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley combine to provide New England a punishing and bruising one-two punch that allows the Patriots to have a fresh running back on the field at all times. While Blount is clearly taking the lead role, Ridley has been able to provide a spark stepping in for a series and keeping the sticks moving as he runs hard and holds onto the football in traffic.
With question marks in the passing game, the Patriots need to get production from their Running backs. With the Patriots leaning so heavily on Julien Edelman, yards through the air may be difficult to come by in the playoffs. Danny Amendola has been clearly limited all season. Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson have been limited by ankle injuries most of the second half of the season and have been unable to contribute. Tight ends Matthew Mulligan and Michael Hoomanawanui are blockers first and receivers second.
This third phase of the Patriots offense will be on display in the playoffs as the offense uses the running game to control the tempo of the game and protect a lead. As the defense are forced to bring safeties in the box to counter the running game, it should open space for play-action and big plays in the passing game. With the running game setting up the pass again, the Patriots offense goes back to looking more like the Super Bowl teams of a decade ago. Whether they can ride the power running game all the way to a championship remains to be seen.