Patriots have a few ways to fix their run game this offseason

Nov 26, 2023; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New England Patriots running back Rhamondre
Nov 26, 2023; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New England Patriots running back Rhamondre / Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Walsh famously believed that you don’t need to establish the run to have a successful NFL offense. And if you have Joe Montana at quarterback, that is undoubtedly true. But not many teams have the luxury of having Joe Cool under center.

For teams with mere mortals at quarterback, the run game is valuable for facilitating the passing game. But Walsh was right; it doesn’t need to be the foundation of the whole offense. The Chiefs didn’t establish a regular run game in the Super Bowl. Isiah Pacheco only ran for 59 yards, but it didn’t stop them from taking another trophy home. 

Despite running the ball 41% of the time in 2023, only 35% of the Patriots' yards on offense came on the ground. And considering Ezekiel Elliott and Rhamondre Stevenson are outstanding running backs, why did the Patriots have the 26th-ranked rushing offense in 2023?

If only one problem existed, they would have found a simple solution during the season. But several issues formed a perfect storm of awfulness. 

They have already begun the process of fixing the run game after 2023’s misfires, though. Albeit accidentally. The most obvious solution was to release Bill O’Brien back into the wild (or wherever they found him). They didn’t have to do that because he decided to take up a role with Ohio State instead of working under Jerod Mayo. And then he decided to become the head coach at Boston College, but that’s a whole other thing.  

The second key to fixing the run game was getting a new offensive line coach. One who actually wants to coach the offensive line instead of complaining about the players on it. And one who hadn’t already been “let go” once (by the Steelers) for doing a terrible job. 

The final personnel changes that should help the run game in New England will involve finding two new starting offensive tackles. It looks like Trent Brown will leave in free agency. And Mike Onwenu could follow his lead, although he has said he’s open to staying.

Drafting Olu Fashanu would seriously improve the run game (that seems incredibly unlikely, though). He’s about 42 lbs. lighter than Brown, so he should be more comfortable in space. And he just moves defenders out of the way. 

Obviously, with a new offensive coordinator comes new play-calling. And, somewhat counterintuitively, Alex Van Pelt could begin to fix the run game by moving on from Bill O’Brien’s obsession with establishing the run. By hyper-focusing on establishing the run, O’Brien suffocated the passing game.

He instead decided to throw screen passes without a particularly effective run game. He asked Mac Jones to attempt passes he wasn’t comfortable throwing.  

That only served to bring extra defenders closer to the line of scrimmage. That made Jones’s job even more complicated and clogged up any running lanes that may have existed.  

O’Brien obviously didn’t trust Jones to throw deep passes, which is a shame. But it’s also partly understandable. No Patriots receiver started more than 13 games (and only 1, Demario Douglas, played in 14 games).

So, whoever was playing quarterback had no real chance to develop an understanding with their receiving corps. And that’s one of the reasons there was no rhythm in the passing game. Or any focal point for the offense. So, keeping the receiving corps healthy and on the field should help the run game, too. 

With Kayshon Boutte probably suspended for the beginning (at least) of the 2024 season, the Patriots will need to bring in at least one rookie receiver. The good news is that there are so many talented receivers heading to the draft that some are bound to be available as UDFAs. If they’re lucky, they’ll be able to hoover up De’Corian Clark after the draft.  

And it certainly seems like there will be a new starting quarterback in Foxborough by Week 1. Drafting Jayden Daniels could help the run game, but as Anthony Richardson proved in Indianapolis last season, rookie QBs can get lit up.

Losing their starting quarterback after four starts would be disastrous. Daniels is not built like Richardson; he’s about 60 lbs. Lighter! But whoever is under center will need to take some shots down the field just to lighten the box. 

Going forward, the final key to improving the Patriots' run game is to run outside more. That will be easier if Rhamondre Stevenson plays every game. Ezekiel Elliott had a very good season (especially catching passes), but he’s more of an abrasive downhill runner. Stevenson can make defenders miss once he gets outside the tackles.  

Using more stretch plays will link in with having new offensive tackles, though. And probably new tight ends who can block downfield. Maybe even a fullback (we can, but hope). Trent Brown is 370 lbs., and Mike Onwenu is 350 lbs. They’re both built to dominate defensive linemen more than to get to the next level and take on linebackers.

The league's more highly acclaimed offensive tackles, like Tristan Wirfs and Lane Johnson, are 320 lbs. And 325 lbs. respectively. Bigger is not necessarily better. The Patriots could even mix in some screen passes to Rhamondre Stevenson; just don’t make them as predictable as the last regime did. 

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