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The Patriots decided not to run up the middle against the Browns

For the first time all year, the Patriots avoided running up the gut.

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The New England Patriots changed how they ran the ball against the Cleveland Browns, at least according to the NFL official statistics. The NFL tracks where players run the ball- behind the left tackle, around the right end, up the middle- and it turns out that the Patriots decided not to run a single carry up the middle.

16 carries to the left. 16 carries to the right. 0 up the middle. None. Zero.

Over the first four weeks of the season, the Patriots ran 39% of their rushes to the left for 5.25 yards per carry (YPC), 34% up the middle for 3.10 YPC, and 27% to the right for 5.70 YPC.

The Patriots have been more successful attacking the edges all year, so it makes sense to run away from the middle against the Browns. But zero carries? That’s surprising.

Especially because the Patriots weren’t particularly good at running the ball this past week. RB LeGarrette Blount was the lowest graded rusher in week 5 according to Pro Football Focus, noting that after Blount ripped off a 13-yard run on his first carry of the game, Blount picked up just 24 yards on his final 17 carries- a groan-inducing 1.41 yards per carry.

According to the Expected Points Model (EPM), which compares the result of a play to the historical average result in similar scenarios, Blount had just two positive plays on the day: that 13-yard run and then his 1-yard touchdown run. Every other play was neutral or negative.

Perhaps Blount is hurt (he is), or perhaps the Browns linebackers were just making incredible players (they were), but RB James White appeared to be fine.

White ran towards the right on four of his five carries. Four of his five carries yielded positive results in the EPM, including three first down runs and an 8-yard gain on 1st and 10. His lone negative play came on a 1st and 20 when the Patriots were running down the clock in the 4th quarter.

White has really come into his own this year as he’s averaged 4.3 YPC on the season- more in line with his 4.2 YPC in 2014, instead of his 2.5 YPC behind the atrocious 2015 offensive line- and he’s developed in a three-way threat.

But I’m more interested in the decision to run away from the middle of the field because I believe that reveals the Patriots rushing strategy.

The Patriots have run towards the left because that is where the best lineman are blocking; LT Nate Solder and LG Joe Thuney are undeniably the top two linemen on the squad. In week 1, when Solder was out and OT Cameron Fleming was on the field, the Patriots ran towards the right behind Marcus Cannon 36% of the time, versus just 18% to the left.

But this past week, the Patriots felt comfortable to run behind Fleming 50% of the time, which is a big sign in how the coaches have increased their trust in Fleming.

Additionally, it’s clear that the Patriots just want to avoid the best player on the opposing defense.

In week 1, the Patriots avoided the Cardinals’ Chandler Jones on the left side of the offensive line. In weeks 2 and 3, the Patriots avoided the Dolphins’ Ndamukong Suh and the Texans’ J.J. Watt on the right side of the line. In week 4, the Patriots avoided running towards the right behind the injured Cannon, and in week 5 they avoided running up the middle against Cleveland’s Danny Shelton.

I actually thought C David Andrews did well against Shelton, but strong nose tackles have given Andrews problems this season.

We’ve noticed how, in the past, the Patriots have opted to just avoid running the ball against elite run defenses like the Jets and this decision to avoid the best player is just an extension of that mindset. There’s no need to run plays towards the best player on the opposing team just to say you’ve run up the middle.

This upcoming week against the Bengals should be an interesting way to review this hypothesis. Cincinnati has a devastating defensive tackle in Geno Atkins and a great edge player in Carlos Dunlap so we’ll have to wait and see how the Patriots run against their front.