Can the New England Patriots Rushing Attack Help Carry Them to the Playoffs?


The New England Patriots are on the bye week during week ten of the NFL season and are in first place in the AFC East with a 7-2 record. Having beaten Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos last week, the Patriots have the number one seed in their grasp with that valuable head-to-head tiebreaker for home field throughout the playoffs. However, the schedule looks intimidating with matchups against the AFC South leading Indianapolis Colts, NFC North powerhouses Detroit and Green Bay, travelling across the country to face the San Diego Chargers, the surprising Dolphins and then after the Jets in week fifteen, the Patriots close out the season with the resurgent Buffalo Bills.


With this difficult stretch of the season coming post-bye week for the Patriots the team needs to be able to pull out victories in difficult environments. Quarterback Tom Brady and the passing offense showed how they can thrive despite the cold and wind last week against Denver as the Patriots offense saw four different receivers catch five or more passes as Brady threw for 333 yards and four touchdowns. However, as the team goes on the road to play Indianapolis, Green Bay, San Diego, and the Jets the offense needs to be able to quiet the loud crowds in opposing stadiums.


One way to do that is to run the ball effectively.


Oct 12, 2014; Orchard Park, NY, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) calls a play during the first half against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

The running game is a vital part of the Patriots offense, not just for moving the ball down the field  but in controlling the clock, establishing field position, keeping the opposing offense on the sidelines, and opening up the play-action passing game for Brady. Last week against Denver’s top-ranked rushing defense (first in the NFL in fewest total rushing yards allowed and third in the NFL in yards allowed per attempt — all stats per unless noted otherwise) New England had just 66 net rushing yards, just three first downs gained via the rush, and a miniscule 2.6 yards per carry on the ground.

rush offense defense ranking code:

Team Offense281330325091133.645
Team Defense1983196244108054.460
Lg Rank Offense21013192927
Lg Rank Defense12152023923

Provided by View Original Table
Generated 11/9/2014.

The play-action is how Brady and Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, and other pocket passers thrive in the passing game. Based on NFL QB Rating on play action passes, Brady ranks fifth in the NFL behind Brees, Rivers, Rodgers, and Roethlisberger with a 119.9 passer rating on 101 play-action dropbacks through nine weeks (per–subscription required). In comparison, on non play-action passes, his NFL QB Rating is just 97.2 (ninth-best in the NFL).


Oct 12, 2014; Orchard Park, NY, USA; New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley (22) punches the ground after being injured during the 2nd half against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Patriots beat the Bills 37-22. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

One strength of the play-action is slowing the safeties and linebackers and forcing them to step-up and respect the running game. With New England’s rushing offense just ordinary ranking 19th in total yards rushing and 27th in yards per rushing attempt (a dismal 3.6 yards per rushing attempt) and 29th in rushing touchdowns after finishing 2013 ninth in yards, yards per attempt and second in total rushing touchdowns. In fact, two of the team’s three rushing touchdowns were from Stevan Ridley who is on injured reserve and missed the last three games.


For New England, the offense has to stick with the running game if only to make space for the receivers with the play action. New England’s offense works through the tight end, slot receiver, and running back before the fourth option is outside the numbers and down the field. This offense works the middle of the field and that space from the play action game makes it the threat of the run that much more valuable to the offense.


Freezing the safeties and linebackers gives that extra space for tight end Rob Gronkowski, slot receiver Julian Edelman, and running back Shane Vereen out of the backfield. This season the addition of wide receiver Brandon LaFell has allowed Brady to make more space with his ability to work the deep and intermediate routes. LaFell’s size (six-foot-two and 211 pounds) and willingness to catch the ball either inside or outside the numbers has given the passing game a boost.


Without Stevan Ridley, however, the Patriots lack a consistent and established running back to grind out yards and wear down defenses. In six games Ridley had 94 rushing attempts, in three games rookie Jonas Gray has just 32. Of course, receiving back Shane Vereen has upped his snap count playing 48 of 60 snaps in week seven vs New York, 33 of 75 snaps in a blowout win against the Bears (the back-ups played most of the fourth quarter) and 63 of 86 snaps against Denver last week. The running game will stay with Gray for the base look with a fullback or extra tight end and Vereen seems to be taking the rest of the snaps in all other formations.


One player to look for in the second half is rookie fourth-round draft pick James White who has just 27 snaps playing on offense just in the blowout loss to Kansas City in week four and the blowout win over Chicago in week eight. Nine rushes for 38 yards and three reception for 15 yards in garbage time is hardly anything to get excited about. White looked slow to adapt to the speed of the game in the preseason rushing for just 80 yards on 29 carries and a 2.8 yards per attempt average. As Gray, who spent last season on multiple practice squads and flashed power and a low center of gravity bouncing off tacklers this preseason and in 2013 for Miami, has the inside track to be the inside rusher for the Patriots. Look for White to get a chance at some point to see if he can steal some carries from Gray down the stretch.


The improvements up front with the offensive line has also had a positive effect on the passing attack and will need to continue to work hard to improve the rushing attack. The problem up front has been New England not having their big five of bodies the coaches wanted to start healthy and playing together. For the Patriots, the unit they have settled upon (left to right) is Nate Solder, Dan Connolly, rookie fourth-round draft pick Bryan Stork, Logan Mankins-clone Ryan Wendell, and Sebastian Vollmer. With that unit together, the team has put up 43, 51, and 43 points.


Nov 2, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots center Ryan Wendell (62) drops back to protect quarterback Tom Brady (12) during the second quarter against the Denver Broncos at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The problem has been the health of the interior unit as they have only played three games (all wins) with Connolly at left guard, Stork at center, and Wendell at right guard. Wendell has stood out with his nasty streak and his return to the 2012 mauler who was physical against the bigger defensive tackles across the line. Moving him from center to guard seems to have invigorated the big undrafted free agent from Fresno State.


Connolly has had some issues in pass protection but he has shown improvement like Wendell moving from center where he started the first three games of the season to guard. The addition of the rookie Stork has a domino effect as Connolly and Wendell play better at guard, and the two tackles–Solder and Vollmer–clearly have played better than earlier in the season with younger players such as Jordan Devey, Josh Kline, and tackles Marcus Cannon and Cameron Fleming playing at guard next to them. Whether mental or just comfort having a veteran next to them, as the five of the line play together more they will improve and that will be especially evident in the running game which requires the cohesion and timing of all five blockers up front.


The running game is in position to improve in the second half of the season for New England. The running game is important not just for the expected poor weather but also for on the road. Even without Stevan Ridley, the strong passing attack utilizing play-action, the improvement on the offensive line, and the emergence of young players Jonas Gray and James White should give the Patriots a boost on offense through the running game into the playoffs.