I received an e-mail from Elisa, a big Patriots fan from Carolina, who asked me the following question:
Could the absence of fullback James Develin be the reason for the Patriots struggling rushing attack?
I wasn't sure how to respond because Develin never really stood out as such a key player in the offense. He seemed like a generally replacement level role player that could be filled by a Michael Hoomanawanui, or an Asante Cleveland, or a Mike from Accounting.
But I did some digging and found out something about the Patriots relationship with their fullback.
The New England Patriots miss James Develin because he makes the passing game so much better.
Develin, he of 10 career receptions for 105 yards, makes the Patriots passing attack jump from mediocre to absolutely insane. The fullback is no Rob Gronkowski, but his impact is undeniable: the Patriots can't wait for Develin to return next season.
We've spent time this week talking about how the offensive line is one of the reasons the offense isn't producing at its early-season levels. Opposing defenses are rushing just three players and dropping eight into coverage against a low-talent offense, and the line is letting the pressure get to Tom Brady.
Defenses feel comfortable with this strategy because they don't consider the Patriots running game to be a threat. Defensive lines can rush after Brady without even pondering whether or not a running back might get the ball.
Put yourself in the shoes of a defensive coordinator.
If you see LeGarrette Blount on the field, do you expect a run or a pass? Blount runs the ball 63% of the time, versus just 24% with all other running backs- and just 16% of the time with James White in the backfield.
If you see guard Shaq Mason at fullback, do you even consider for a moment that the Patriots might throw the ball?
The Patriots rely on the play action more than most teams and Tom Brady is one of the most lethal passers in history when he gets to freeze linebackers to open up seams for his tight ends. When teams don't fear the rushing attack, the split second Brady needs to deliver a strike up the middle disappears and he's forced to hold the ball longer, and pressure is able to hit home.
Since Develin took over as the lead fullback in 2013 through this stage of the 2015 season, the Patriots actually average 0.82 fewer yards per carry in the rushing game when Develin is on the field, versus when he is off the field. On the flip side, the Patriots passing attack averages 1.11 yards per play more with Develin in the backfield. The average passing play jumps from 6.39 yards per passing play (similar to Chad Henne) to 7.50 (closer to Drew Brees).
Why? Defenses actually have to respect the rushing game when Develin is on the field, and then he's also a threat in the passing game out of the play action. He keeps the linebackers occupied and thinking, while there's zero chance that teams have to account for Mason in the passing game.
When the Patriots place Develin on the field with six offensive linemen and zero or one tight end, showing a versatile heavy run package, the Patriots average passing play picks up 11.0 yards per play. When the Patriots don't use Develin, but instead use one or two tight ends (keeping the general size of bodies on the field equal), the offense gains 6.0 yards per passing play.
We've seen New England use Asante Cleveland in the backfield in recent weeks and that's a positive sign for the offense as Cleveland is actually an able receiver on the field. The offense's success with Cleveland is worth monitoring, but until a player is able to step up into the surprisingly large shoes left vacant by Develin, the loss of the team's fullback remains one of the most important injuries that no one has really discussed.