Patriots Showing Commitment to Ground Game
By Kevin Duffy
FOXBORO -- Still waiting for the game when the Patriots go empty formation, spread the field, and let Tom Brady dissect a helpless defense?
Maybe it’s coming.
After all, Pittsburgh is still on the docket. And that strategy has worked brilliantly against defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s zone coverages.
But three-fourths of the way through the 2018 season, the Patriots offense seems more reliant on its running backs than ever before.
The backfield, comprised of Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead and fantasy stud James Develin, racked up 45 touches in Sunday’s win over the Vikings. That’s an absurd number, their highest total in years.
“They’re doing what they need to do to move the ball,” said Miami coach Adam Gase, whose Dolphins were gashed on the ground by the Patriots in Week 4. “The way they went about it last week was the right way, and put them in the best position on third downs...They find multiple different ways to get a whole bunch of guys the ball.”
Although they weren’t terribly efficient running between the tackles against Minnesota, which boasts one of the NFL’s stingiest rush defenses, the final numbers looked great. The backfield accounted for 51.5 percent of the Pats’ offensive production. Even when we subtract White’s meaningless 42-yard gain on the final play of the first half, Pats running backs still topped 200 yards from scrimmage.
It’s not a stretch to suggest that the backfield has become the centerpiece of the offense.
Truthfully, the Patriots have been trending in this direction for years. In 2014, their running backs combined to average 28.3 touches per game. The following year, that number dipped to 27.3. After the lack of a competent running game derailed their season in 2015, the Patriots recommitted to a running back-centric approach in 2016, feeding the ball to LeGarrette Blount, Dion Lewis, White and Co. an average of 31.3 times per outing. And last year, that figure rose to 33.1 touches per game.
Following the win over Minnesota, Pats running backs are getting the ball 33.8 times per game (and that includes plays when Cordarrelle Patterson aligns in the backfield). Much like the Saints, who have built a superpower offense on the legs of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, as well as the incredible efficiency of Drew Brees, the Patriots have transitioned to a new approach.
Surprisingly, the Patriots are feeding the ball to their backs at a higher rate than the Saints. Led by Kamara and Ingram, the New Orleans backfield averages 31.8 touches.
Even the Steelers teams carried by Le’Veon Bell didn’t utilize their backfields like the 2018 Patriots. Last year, Pittsburgh backs got the rock an average of 30.1 times. This mostly fell on Bell, whereas the Patriots distribute the workload between three or four players.
Of course, the Pats prefer to not get caught up in all the numbers.
“I don’t try to pay too much attention to how many targets and what not I’m getting,” White said. “I just go out there and play football whether it’s 13 targets or zero targets. I just try to go out there and do my job. It doesn’t really matter. I just try and go out there and help my team get a win.”
The Patriots’ creative usage of their running backs makes all the difference. And what we saw against the Vikings should serve as a blueprint for the rest of the season. Michel will be the lead between-the-tackles back. At 215 pounds, he’s the biggest of the bunch. He brings some big-play ability, as evidenced by two runs of 30-plus yards against the Jets.
White possesses an innate feel for the position. He’s an expert at setting up blocks and making the right reads to catch defenders slightly out of position.
Burkhead, who returned from injured reserve last week, is a hybrid. The Pats subbed in Burkhead for Michel during a few series against the Vikings, and also utilized a Burkhead-White pairing in the backfield for third downs. Both players are matchup problems against linebackers.
This look can be an issue for defenses, mostly because they rarely see it.
“It’s just trying to figure out who you want matching up with who and how you see it, especially when you get in third-and-shorter distances,” Gase said. “Then all of a sudden they start running the ball and you don’t have enough guys in the box or you’ve got smaller players out there and they can take advantage of it. They just have so much available to them in their playbook.”
The 2018 Patriots offense found its footing in the first matchup with Miami, when Michel and White alone combined for 44 touches, 224 yards from scrimmage, and three touchdowns.