The New England Patriots are going to uncork the next wave in offensive strategy and it involves role players that no one wants. Surprise, surprise.
In 2007, the Patriots used Wes Welker, a tiny receiver that didn't match the size/speed combination of a #1 receiver, and transformed him into the greatest slot receiver in league history. Welker became the engine that moved the sticks for the best offense in league history.
In 2010, the Patriots drafted a duo of undervalued tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and started the two-tight end offense that no opposing defense had the personnel to match. No team has been able to replicate New England's success with those two players, but many have tried (including the Indianapolis Colts with Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen).
Now it's time for a new wave and it takes the combination of undersized players at an undervalued role and turns them into an absolute nightmare for the opposing defense.
Good luck stopping these jitterbugs. https://t.co/kV16zbYXct— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) August 26, 2015
Prior to the 2014 draft, the Philadelphia Eagles sent a mere 5th round pick to the New Orleans Saints to acquire running back and pioneer Darren Sproles. Sproles rewarded Philadelphia with his seventh straight 650+ yard season, picking up 329 rushing yards and 387 receiving yards.
It's easy to say that Chip Kelly underutilized Sproles, too, as the back collected zero passing targets against the formidable Seahawks and Rams defensive lines. Shane Vereen, in a similar role with New England, posted 12 targets against the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, changing the game in the Patriots favor.
The Saints used the 5th round pick on linebacker Ronald Powell, who saw three snaps in the 2014 regular season, and currently isn't practicing due to injury.
Score one for Chip.
The Patriots have stocked their roster with pass-catching running backs and they mean to use them in 2015. After selecting James White in the 4th round of the 2014 draft, the Patriots added Dion Lewis and Travaris Cadet in the off-season. All three are known for their receiving prowess. Add in Brandon Bolden, who stepped up whenever Vereen was injured, and the Patriots have four players that are threats out of the backfield. Even LeGarrette Blount wants to be more involved in the passing game.
As Cadet has been injured, and Bolden and Blount are close to roster locks as it gets, head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have been giving White and Lewis plenty of opportunities to show their value. They've even started to use them on the same play.
I counted six plays where the Patriots featured both Lewis and White in the backfield and the results were positive. The Patriots collected three first downs, including the first play on the game-winning drive, a touchdown, and a 2-yard and 7-yard gain on first down.
The biggest value? The Saints had absolutely no idea what was coming at them. McDaniels used each play to build off the prior and every single play was different. Here's the story.
Two backs #1 https://t.co/tkdgwGWT0Z— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) August 26, 2015
Result: A 7-yard gain on first down.
This is a fairly simple set screen for Lewis to run down the field. A necessary block by Shaq Mason springs him for a gain, but the value of White on the far side of the field is also simple. The edge rusher slows his rush in case the ball is going to White, and the linebacker runs to the far side of the field to cover.
Had the Patriots blockers all gotten to their points (Mason has to dive to block and David Andrews is slow down the field), Lewis would have plenty of space to cut back in the middle of the field. Instead, the quality play by the Saints defense ruins the Patriots formation and Lewis still picks up seven yards.
Two backs #2 https://t.co/YZ4vLfe41l— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) August 26, 2015
Result: A 4-yard gain for a first down to Chris Harper on 4th and 2.
In the first play, the far side edge rusher slowed his rush and stepped outside in case the pass was to White. In this play, he repeats the same motion, opening up a wide passing lane directly to Harper. Harper runs a great route to box out the single coverage and no one is close enough to make a play on Jimmy Garoppolo's dart.
Two backs #3 James White sets out wide after the huddle. No motion. CB coverage. Lewis TD. https://t.co/qVVzaR0lyP— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) August 26, 2015
Result: An 11-yard touchdown run on 1st and goal after a penalty.
I really wish there was a goal line camera for this play. This isn't a no huddle play, but the Patriots use White outside, directly out of the break. The two-running back formation was likely to test the Saints defensive personnel. If New Orleans countered the Patriots two-back set with a base defensive look, then New England would likely have thrown the ball. Instead, the Saints were in the nickel and the Patriots responded with a run up the middle against a smaller defense.
An important lesson? The Saints treat White and Lewis as receivers more than running backs, so any time the Patriots use these two backs, the Saints will use personnel to stay and cover.
Two backs #4 https://t.co/GHCWixXLQe— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) August 26, 2015
Result: A 10-yard gain for a first down to Chris Harper on 3rd and 2.
The Saints play seven in the box against this two-back set, with a single high safety. This tells Garoppolo that a quick pass to the sideline will be the play due to the coverage. The quarterback does a good job of looking down the center of the field to freeze the safety before firing a dart to Harper on the outside.
The two running backs stay in to chip against the Saints blitz, with Lewis leaking out to the near side while the ball is thrown. The Patriots win the numbers game with seven blockers against the six Saints pass rushers, giving Garoppolo a beautiful pocket to throw a strike to Harper.
Two backs #5 White sets wide out of the huddle. https://t.co/exMitt32gc— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) August 26, 2015
Result: A 2-yard gain on first down.
You can see White running to the far side of the field out of the huddle. You know how Lewis' touchdown run was against the nickel package? Well, the Saints are in base with three linebackers, which means that the Patriots are going to respond with a passing play to Lewis.
Right tackle Cameron Fleming didn't do his job, or else Lewis would still be running to this day. Fleming was supposed to cut block the edge defender to get him to the ground, and then Lewis would have Chris Harper and Brandon Gibson blocking down field.
But we can see how McDaniels uses prior plays and the Saints responses to these plays in order to build up future success.
Two backs #6 White starts wide out of the huddle. Two minute drill. Krause up the seam. https://t.co/wzv2vdgD5l— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) August 26, 2015
Result: A 22-yard gain to Jonathan Krause on 1st and 10 during the first play of the two-minute drill.
The Saints are in the nickel defense with two linebackers and a single high safety. One of their linebackers blitz Garoppolo, while the other sheds off into coverage of Lewis on the near side of the field. Garoppolo looks to Lewis and draws the safety away from Krause up the middle of the field.
The outcome? Literally no one is in the middle of the field, meaning that Garoppolo has a wide open passing lane to Krause up the seam. Garoppolo was masterful with how he dissected the Saints defense on this play.
But think of the two other times the Patriots kicked White to the sideline. When the Saints showed nickel on the two-back set, the play went to Lewis in a run for a touchdown. When the Saints showed base, the play was a pass to Lewis. The Saints understood that White was the diversion to see how New Orleans responded, but the plays both went to Lewis.
So they bit when Garoppolo looked to Lewis. And then the play went to Krause.
Both Lewis and White possess a similar shiftiness on the open field, while Lewis has a little more force in the running game. But Cadet was advertised as a wide receiver playing running back- so can you imagine if the 6'1 Cadet aligned outside instead of the 5'10 White? Perhaps the threat of a pass would be greater, instead of the second back acting as a decoy.
The two-back set looks to be tremendously effective and versatile and would seem to receive plenty of play against top tier defensive lines. It looks to be a formation built to take down the Seahawks- or the Bills, Jets, and Dolphins.
Belichick has found yet another inefficiency (a 5th round pick for Sproles? Really?) and will use these backs to increase the unpredictability of the New England offense. White and Lewis are just a taste. There's definitely more to come.