When you have Tom Brady as your quarterback, you throw the ball. It's what you do. However, a successful offensive attack has to be able to adapt in order attack its opponent's defensive weaknesses, whatever they may be. That's why the New England Patriots had a 40:36 run-pass ratio in last year's AFC Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts, while they had a 51:21 split two weeks later against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX.
In order to do that, you need players who have the abilities to perform no matter the circumstances and game plan. The offensive line and tight ends need to be able to hold their ground in the running game, while also being up to task in the passing game. All while the players they are blocking for do their job and give the coaching staff confidence to stick to the game plan.
One such player is running back Steven Jackson.
Jackson was signed as a free agent prior to the Patriots' week 16 game against the New York Jets. He was active for the game but, in a limited role, saw only seven carries. On Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, the 32-year old touched the ball 15 time as his role and responsibilities grew compared to his first game with the club.
Let's take a look at the film to analyze Jackson's day – and find out what he can offer the Patriots' moving forward.
1) 1-10-NE 16 (14:01) 39-S.Jackson left guard to NE 19 for 3 yards (31-M.Thomas).
After forcing a punt on the Dolphins' first series of the game, the Patriots started their first drive at their own 16-yard line. New England came out in a 12-personnel set with Keshawn Martin (82) and Brandon LaFell (19) as the wide receivers on the left and right side of the formation, respectively, as well as tight ends Rob Gronkowski (87) and Michael Williams (85) as extra blockers on the left side of the offensive line. Tom Brady (12) lined up under center with Steven Jackson (39) the lone player in the backfield:
The Patriots would use multiple tight end sets and variations of this line-up multiple times throughout the day to get favorable match-ups in the running game. On this particular play, Brady handed the ball off to Jackson, who ran behind the formation's strong side. At the hand-off, New England controlled the line of scrimmage as the extra blockers up front allowed them to double-team defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh (93) and Jordan Phillips (97):
Jackson displayed good initial burst after the hand-off and found an opening behind the tight ends and Martin:
While the run gained just three yards as the blocking upfront could not hold long enough to create a bigger hole (Gronkowski and Martin lost inside leverage, Williams lost balance and fell down), the veteran running back showed determination in hitting the gap and initiating contact with the bodies in front of him to gain the maximum yardage available.
2) 2-7-NE 19 (13:20) 39-S.Jackson right guard to NE 18 for -1 yards (52-K.Sheppard)
On the very next play, Jackson ran the ball again – this time for a loss of a yard (his only run of the day that did not gain yards). New England's offense did not change personnel, only the formation: the Patriots used an I-formation with Gronkowski lined up as an extra blocker on the right side of the formation and Williams as a fullback:
Williams ran behind the left side of the line but Jackson did not follow him. Instead, after the snap, he saw a hole develop in the middle of the field, which he tried to take advantage of:
Unfortunately, New England had multiple breakdowns leading to Jackson getting tackled behind the line of scrimmage. First, the left side was unable to get a push upfield. Center Bryan Stork (66) and left guard Josh Kline (67) both initially blocked Suh, but Stork did not get his upper body high enough out of his stance and lost balance as a result. Second, rookie right guard Tre' Jackson (63) was beaten even before the hand-off. Philips, who lined up as a three-technique used a swim-move to beat Jackson to the outside shoulder:
The third breakdown was committed by the running back himself as Jackson could have displayed better vision and patience on the play. Instead of following Williams to the left-side boundary, he decided to reverse course and head towards the hole he saw. Unfortunately, with the left guard beaten, the center lying on the ground, and linebacker Kelvin Sheppard (52) unaccounted for, the hole was closed rather quickly and Jackson was tackled for a loss.
3) 1-10-NE 20 (8:07) 39-S.Jackson left tackle to NE 26 for 6 yards (24-Br.McCain).
Jackson's next carry came on the Patriots' very next possession, right after the Dolphins took a 3-0 lead. It was Jackson's longest run of the day and a great example of perfect execution across the board. New England lined-up in the exact same formation they used on the first offensive play, a 12-personnel group with a double-tight end set in a three-point stance on the right side of the line:
However, New England ran a different play this time (which also illustrates the beauty of the Patriots offense: they show the same formation but are able to run multiple plays out of it). At the snap, the Patriots deliberately left Miami defensive end Derrick Shelby (79) unblocked, as right tackle Marcus Cannon (61) moved inside to – successfully – block Sheppard. The rest of the linemen won their battles as well, while right guard Jackson pulled behind the line to help running back Jackson as a lead blocker:
As opposed to his last carry, the veteran running back did display patience on this one while following the rookie guard, who did a good job moving from the right to the left side and blocking safety Reshad Jones (20):
With Jones blocked, Jackson had room to turn up-field to gain another four yards. The former Ram and Falcon also showed good technique and strength in the process. After getting wrapped-up around the waist by cornerback Brice McCain (24), Jackson's feet kept working while he lowered his shoulders to gain an additional three yards after contact.
4) 1-10-NE 36 (14:07) 39-S.Jackson left tackle to NE 41 for 5 yards (46-N.Hewitt; 57-D.Moore).
In the second quarter, the Patriots tied the game. The drive that ended with Stephen Gostkowski's 34-yard field goal was started by yet another Steven Jackson rushing attempt. New England once again came out in 12-personnel, with LaFell and Martin in a slot formation to the right and Gronkowski and Scott Chandler (88) in a three-point stance to the left side of the formation:
The Patriots had a solid set-up for the play. After the snap, Miami's defensive tackles were both double-teamed, while the tight ends did enough to stop their respective opponents from impacting the play too much. Gronkowski and the combo-block by right tackle Cameron Fleming (71) and Kline opened a nice hole for the running back:
Jackson saw the opening in the line, lowered his shoulders and ran through it for a gain of five yards. The play could have gained even more, had Fleming been able to get off his initial double-team block a split-second earlier to get to the second level and prevent linebacker Neville Hewitt (46) from tackling the ball-carrier. Still, it was a nice display of what Jackson does best: recognizing play development and technique.
5) 1-2-MIA 2 (12:37) 39-S.Jackson left tackle for 2 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
11 of Steven Jackson's 15 touches came in the first half of the game (one of which, a 20-yard catch on a well designed screen). While he only ran the ball four times in the last 30 minutes, he scored his first touchdown as a Patriot on one of those rushes; a two-yard score in the early third quarter. The Patriots originally used the same personnel as on the previous play we looked at but motioned Martin from the right-side slot to the left side of the formation shortly before the snap. Gronkowski and Williams worked as the blocking tight ends:
The Patriots set up good blocks after snap and hand-off, despite Williams losing inside leverage to defensive end Olivier Vernon (50). However, neither the tight end nor the running back panicked as Williams, thanks to his 6'5 frame, simply drove Vernon further to the inside, so that Jackson was able to run around the initial pressure:
Gronkowski threw a nice block on safety Michael Thomas (31) to seal the edge, while Martin was blocking closer to the goal line. Still, Jackson and Martin were outnumbered but the running back prevented being tackled short of the end zone by not slowing down and lowering his shoulder to fight off tackling attempts by both McCain and safety Shamiel Gary (27):
Again, it was a combination of many little things that led to a successful run. Jackson again showed vision, technique and strength, while the blockers did a solid job of creating a relatively free running lane.
6) 2-2-NE 12 (12:44) 39-S.Jackson up the middle to NE 13 for 1 yard (97-J.Phillips).
Not every play was as successful as the last three we looked at. After all, Jackson rushed for only 35 yards on 14 attempts. A lot of this had to do with the fact that the Patriots were content on running out of run-first sets – on every play we looked at so far, the team has used its tight ends close to the formation – and that the Dolphins were able to adapt and keep more men in the box to stop the run. This, in turn, put more pressure on the blockers to perform. Unfortunately, they often were not up to the task, as the following play illustrates.
By design, this play is very similar to the six-yard run we looked at earlier: a pull-block play. New England lined-up in a 12-personnel set-up with both tight ends used as blockers on the offensive line's left side, while Jackson again pulled across the formation from his right guard spot:
The first such play was executed perfectly by the Patriots. This one wasn't. Left guard Josh Kline, who had returned from injury after missing his team's week 16 game in New York, was on the sidelines for this series and replaced by rookie Shaq Mason (69). Mason, together with left tackle Fleming, was responsible for blocking defensive tackle Jordan Phillips. At the snap, however, Phillips was able to easily beat Mason to the inside:
Mason getting beat without much resistance destroyed the entire blocking concept at that side of the line, as it also left Fleming in a position unable to limit the damage. The rookie guard getting beat at the snap was the major problem on the play, but not the only one. Steven Jackson could possibly have avoided Phillips had he not decided to run inside as opposed to following Tre' Jackson's lead block:
The tight end duo and Keshawn Martin did another good job of sealing the edge on the side, the pulling guard was running towards. Yet, with Jackson deciding to run between the tackles, he had no chance to gain significant yardage and was stopped after only one yard. To his credit, though, the veteran avoided getting tackled behind the line of scrimmage by using a spin-move and constantly keeping his feet working.
Naturally, Steven Jackson no longer possesses the quickness and burst he had when he was younger – after all, he is in his 12th season in the league and had 3,207 career touches before joining the Patriots. Still, the veteran running back can help New England's running game because of his technique, vision and experience in recognizing plays.
While his first two weeks were far from spectacular, there is reason to believe Jackson's production in New England will improve once a) the team again starts to open up its offensive playbook, b) the offensive line gets better with Kline returning to full strength and Vollmer returning from injury, and c) Jackson getting more comfortable within the offense.
Time will tell if any of those things happen – but if they do, Steven Jackson could become a valuable member of yet another Patriots playoff run.