There was a lot to like about Sunday's 34-13 victory against the Titans, but I was probably most excited about Stevan Ridley and the effectiveness of the New England ground attack. And while there's no way I'm going to sit here and say that Ridley is the second coming of Corey Dillon, I can't remember the last time I walked (more like stumbled) away from a Patriots game that amped about the rushing offense. It has been running back by committee for years here in New England, and while the other backs on the roster are sure to see their fair share of carries, we may have finally found the workhorse back we thought we were getting when we drafted NoGain Maroney back in 2006.
One of the many benefits of an effective running game is that it allows the offense to control the clock, stay on the field, and give the defense much needed rest. A solid running game is also a great way to protect a lead, as you can consistently produce long, sustained drives that keep the ball out of the opposing quarterback's hands and don't allow him to huck the ball up into double coverage so some random receiver can make an absurd circus catch and kick my world in. New England hasn't been able to effectively run out the clock via the run game in some time, and Sunday's win hopefully signaled the beginning of some very good things for their offense.
But perhaps what impressed me most about the running game on Sunday was the team's ability to run the ball successfully while still utilizing the no-huddle offense. It was absolutely fascinating to see the Patriots employ an offensive scheme traditionally used to move the ball quickly downfield in order to maximize the effectiveness of the four-minute offense. And while combining a clock-kill with the no-huddle is by no means a revolutionary notion, the Patriots did it so effectively towards the end of Sunday's game that I just had to go back and revisit it.
Brady runs the offense the same way he would if he were trying to move the ball quickly and get points on the board before the end of the half or the game: he sees a defense he likes, so he keeps them on the field and gets the offense up to the line very quickly. He obviously takes his time snapping the ball once the line is set, but there are a few other tricks he uses in order to both ensure a play's success and keep that clock ticking. I'm obviously only going off of one game and two drives here, so there isn't a very generous cross-section of data just yet, but they are all factors to monitor as the season goes on and the Pats (hopefully!) consistently slow the clock down to protect a late lead.
Increased tight end motioning. No team in the NFL uses their tight ends as effectively as New England uses Gronk and Hernandez, but it's especially interesting to watch when the Pats are in clock kill mode. Brady had his tight ends line up and then moved them elsewhere on almost every snap late in the game, and since they are both such dangerous passing threats, teams can never assume that they are just in the lineup as blockers. When the Patriots are running as well as they did on Sunday, opposing teams simply have to be ready for anything, and by moving Gronk and Hernandez all over the place there's simply no way for opposing teams to know what the Patriots are doing on any given play. Which leads me to my next point.
Constant threat of the pass. The Patriots have been a pass-first team for at least 5 seasons now, and the bulk of the film that teams have amassed over the years have consisted of primarily an aerial attack. Thus, even when it makes the most sense for the Pats to run, there is always that threat of whether or not they are going to throw the ball instead. That threat allows Tommy B to audible from run to pass play at will, finding success with both. A great example of this versatility:
- 9:11 left, Pats 1st and 10 on their own 17. Single back set with Ridley in the backfield, Gronk, Welker, and Hernandez lined up right, Lloyd alone on the left in the Z spot for what was likely a short yardage play through the B/C gap. Brady saw Titans LBs cheating over towards the tight ends and possibly clogging running lanes, so he audibles to Ridley and motions Gronk out wide. Brady drops back and looks right, selling the pass to Gronk, getting LBs to overcommit before dumping off a short pass to Ridley, who turns upfield for a 20 yard gain.
If New England can consistently keep defenses honest with a solid running game, than this type of no-huddle attack will be borderline unstoppable.
Diverse running back stable. It's almost as if Bill Belichick selected his running backs with exactly what we saw late in the Tennessee game in mind. In Ridley you have your workhorse back, in Vereen (when he gets back on the field) you have your change of pace back, and in Woodhead you have a good receiving threat that can scamper for a few yards and prevent defenses from stacking the box. So, by huddling once and making one RB substitution, the Patriots can give defenses five or six completely different looks, all while keeping the same defense on the field, controlling the clock, and hanging onto the ball. An RBBC may drive fantasy owners nuts, but the bottom line is it makes a lot of sense if you want to win football games.
If all goes well, we'll see the Patriots in clock-killing mode this Sunday at home against Arizona and we'll be able to examine whether there are any consistencies in the no-huddle run game. I'm especially excited for Shane Vereen to get healthy, as I think there is a whole new element - and a whole new gameplan - that we haven't even seen yet.