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The Patriots Should Have Run the Ball Against the Packers

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Hindsight is 20-20 and the Patriots definitely should have run the ball while they were in Green Bay.

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

If there's one game that the Patriots would want back from last year's Championship season, it might be the game against the Packers, and in that game they could've taken a lesson from the Seattle Seahawks:

Just run the dang ball.

I've always been interested in delving into the alchemy known better as Bill Belichick's Running Back Carousel and the numbers point to the Patriots deviating from their typical game plan when they faced the Packers.

Typically, when the Patriots faced a defense like the Packers, they would use a heavy dose of their rushing back (LeGarrette Blount, Jonas Gray, Stevan Ridley), while the receiving back (Shane Vereen) would play less often. When New England faced a strong defensive line, they would flip the scheme and use more of Vereen than their rushing back.

Here's how you can interpret the graph:

The Y-Axis (the percentages) is the percent of snaps by the Patriots rushing back. If it's 20%, that means that the rushing back played 20% of the snaps by a Patriots running back on the day.

The X-Axis (the digits) is the ranking of the opposing defensive line's run defense by Football Outsiders.

What we see is a clear two-step delineation in running back usage that aligns with our expectation; good defensive lines see fewer snaps by the Patriots rushing back. There are two exceptions.

One is the game against the Chicago Bears (the data point to the furthest right), where the Bears featured a weak defensive line, yet the Patriots still featured a heavy dose of Shane Vereen. The simple explanation is that James White saw heavy snaps in this blowout of a game, which skewed the snap count towards the receiving backs. This is also the game where Bears defensive end Lamarr Houston tore his ACL, so the defense likely took a downward turn after this game.

The other outlier is against the Packers with their 26th ranked defensive line. Against Green Bay, the rushing back played 37% of the snaps, instead of the expected 50+%, and by judging Blount's success against the Packers, he could've run for a lot more.

While the game featured a nine-point deficit at the start of the third quarter, due to Devin McCourty over-reading a Jordy Nelson route right before halftime, New England was never out of this game. Yet out of the 29 offensive snaps in the second half, 20 of them were passing plays (19 attempts, 1 sack). Blount and Gray combined for 7 carries and 48 yards in the second half, for nearly 7 yards per carry.

Brady completed just 10 attempts of the 20 passing plays, averaging just over 5 yards per attempt. The Patriots were more efficient running the ball.

In the third quarter, Blount received just one carry. In the fourth quarter, Blount ripped off three runs for 12 or 13 yards. The first half wasn't any better, with Blount saw four carries out of the 25 offensive plays, matching the combined total of Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden.

In total Blount and Gray combined for 62 yards on 11 carries, for a 5.6 yards per carry rate.

For whatever reason, the play calling steering towards a passing attack. That might be a game plan that Josh McDaniels and the Patriots might want to take back.