The New England Patriots’ offense readies for a 2014 season with 37-year old quarterback Tom Brady at the helm and almost the entire cast from 2013 returning. The main loss on offense was running back LeGarrette Blount who has a cast of rookies and unproven backs trying to step up and replace him. At wide receiver, only veteran Austin Collie does not return. In his place the Patriots brought in former Carolina Panthers receiver Brandon LaFell to bring a different type of receiver to the offense.
In 2013 the New England Patriots rushed the ball almost 43 percent of the time while throwing the ball just over 57% of their offensive plays (per SportingCharts.com). Despite New England’s reputation as a finesse passing team, last year they turned into a power running team down the stretch as they reworked their offense for the third time during the season.
The Patriots have long had a reputation for changing up their game plan on a yearly, weekly, quarter-by-quarter, and down-by-down basis. Early in 2013, the Patriots offense struggled mightily as running back Stevan Ridley had fumbling issues again and wide receiver Danny Amendola, pass-catching running back Shane Vereen and tight end Rob Gronkowski were not on the field due to injury.
After Gronkowski returned the offense it was a major change in scoring ability. The Patriots offense averaged 32 points per game when Gronkowski was in the lineup last year (week 7 through Week 13). Without him on the field, the Patriots averaged 24.6 points per game. After Gronkowski was lost for the season against Cleveland in week 14, the Patriots offense was forced to change and adapt again.
For the final stretch of 2013 the Patriots suddenly turned into a “ground and pound” offense as they rushed for 96, 142, and 267 yards to close out the regular season. They continued their power running game into the playoffs as they took down Indianapolis in the divisional round 43-22 with 234 yards on the ground. Blount rushed for four touchdowns and Ridley added another two on the ground against the Colts as Brady completed only 13 passes in the playoff win. Unfortunately, Denver stuffed the power running game in the AFC Championship game and ended New England’s season.
Previously, the Patriots had used the two-tight end attack in 2010, 2011, and 2012 to frustrate opposing defenses. In 2010 and 2011 Brady and new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien used the two-tight end look to get mismatches in the passing game when teams played base defense against the look and in the running game when defenses were in the nickel. They took it to another level in 2012 as they implemented the hurry-up offense based on the offense of (at the time) Oregon coach Chip Kelly in the college game.
Last year, the Patriots almost had a perfect split of duties from their running backs as they received 772 yards rushing and seven touchdowns from LeGarrette Blount and 773 yards rushing and seven touchdowns from Stevan Ridley in the regular season. Add in the shifty third-down back Shane Vereen and the Patriots had a trio of running backs capable of big plays and consistent play–when they were healthy and held onto the football. The Patriots in 2012 rushed for an average of 136.5 yards per game and in 2013 the Patriots almost matched that total as they rushed for 129.1 yards per game (statistics from NFL.com).
Historically, the statistics bear out the balance in the offense of the Patriots. While they moved to the two-tight end offense, they continued to run the ball. In 2012 they rushed almost 45% of the time (13th highest percentage in the league –per SportingCharts.com). In 2011 they were very pass heavy as they rushed only 41% of their plays (22nd in the league). In 2010 the Patriots were more balanced as they were 7th in rushing percentage running the ball 47% of the time.
Despite allowing Blount–their most effective running back last season– to leave in free agency, the Patriots took Wisconsin running back James White in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft. The 5-foot-9 and 204 pound back can catch the ball out of the backfield, has experience in pass protection, and gets his pads low between the tackles when running the ball inside. He should get time in the offense sharing carries with Ridley while also being able to provide depth on third-down in case of another injury to Vereen.
New England brought in a number of running backs to compete with incumbent Brandon Bolden. The Patriots signed undrafted free agent running backs Stephen Houston and Roy Finch and had previously signed running back Jonas Gray to a futures contract in January 2014.
Finch was a dynamic, explosive change of pace back at Oklahoma but will likely have to earn a spot on the team by beating out Bolden and contributing in the return game on special teams. He could contribute immediately as a punt and kick returner and has the potential to back-up Vereen as an option on third down. Houston has lead back size and also has experience as a receiver out of the backfield. He will compete with Finch on special teams as a returner. Gray was with the Dolphins initially last year and was cut after spending time on the PUP list recovering from a torn ACL while having a good year as a senior at Notre Dame. He was then signed to the practice squad with Baltimore before coming to New England on a futures contract.
For the Patriots’ offense under offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels it is all about finding the balance. Yes, there will be games where Brady throws 50 passes and there will be games where they grind out 40 plus rushes and control the clock and game. While changing their offensive game plan from week-to-week to exploit match-ups, the offense will also seek to find a symmetry with Stevan Ridley and the running game and Brady’s group of receivers. The passing game works best with the play-action and that is dependent upon having a strong running game.
Last year the season ended in the AFC Championship game with tight end Rob Gronkowski sidelined and the running backs producing just 64 yards on the ground. Blount and Ridley combined for just 23 yards on 10 rushes as Denver linebacker Danny Trevathan and defensive linemen Shaun Phillips and Terrence “Pork Chop” Knighton shut down the running game. At the half of the AFC Championship game the Patriots had rushed 8 times for just 16 yards.
New England may have lost the game when cornerback Aqib Talib left with a leg injury on the fourth play of the second quarter with the game only 3-0 in favor of Denver, but the lack of production in the rushing attack after weeks of controlling opposing defenses was a major factor in not making the Super Bowl.
For the Patriots, the next four preseason games will prove important as they attempt to identify who will emerge and in what roles from their group of running backs. A balanced, productive offense needs all of the backs–Ridley, White, Vereen, and Bolden or Finch or Houston or Gray–to be able to contribute throughout the season.
Without a strong running game capable of complementing the passing game another Super Bowl victory for the aging quarterback Brady is unlikely.