The New England Patriots rushing attack was far from ideal during the 2015 season. The offense lost running backs Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount to season-ending injuries. Starting left tackle Nate Solder suffered torn biceps in week 5 and that was just the tip of the injury iceberg that hit the offensive line.
Sometimes pictures can say it all.
Running game declined over the course of the season. pic.twitter.com/ppTDkNT3oe— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) February 14, 2016
Saving the worst for last, apparently. pic.twitter.com/94cxv2QMZ9— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) February 14, 2016
But sometimes images need explanations.
The rushing game peaked against the Cowboys and Colts, with consecutive weeks of 5.68 and 5.70 yards per carry (YPC). Offensive tackle Nate Solder was lost for the year against the Cowboys and his back-up Marcus Cannon was hurt against the Colts.
Week 6 was the fantastic game against the New York Jets, where Lewis was sidelined with abdominal issues, and Blount and James White combined five carries for a whopping one yard. It's interesting that the Patriots eight weakest games by Expected Points Added (ie: how successful were the rushes?) were against main rivals.
The playoff game against the Broncos was the worst all season, closely followed by the December game against the Jets. The third worst game was the regular season loss to Denver, while the fourth and fifth were both against the Dolphins. Four of these five games were losses.
The rushing game needs to either improve, or be ignored, if the Patriots want to handle these rivals moving forward. James White and Brandon Bolden combined for 2.51 YPC and -18.7 expected points on their carries during the worst five games. If the rushing game was merely average instead of atrocious, the Patriots could very well have won all five of these games.
So what was the problem?
In week 5, Solder tore his biceps and was lost for the season. 11 snaps into the week 6 game against the Colts, Cannon suffered a toe injury that limited him for the rest of the season and forced Sebastian Vollmer to play left tackle.
Lewis missed week 7 against the Jets with an abdominal issue, played against the Dolphins in week 8 at less-than-100%, and then was lost for the season around the half in week 9 against Washington.
That Washington game was the end of the Patriots rushing game. After cracking 4.0 YPC or above average EPA in five of the first eight games, the team cracked 4.0 YPC just once (Eagles) and put forth just one above average rushing game by EPA (Texans) over the final ten games.
The rest of the 2016 featured a hodgepodge offensive line and running back group.
Tackle Sebastian Vollmer suffered a concussion against Washington that led center Bryan Stork to play tackle in his first game back from injury. Neither Vollmer, nor Cannon were the same after their injuries. Rookies Shaq Mason and Tre Jackson battled knee injuries that forced Josh Kline to play heavy snaps with a shoulder injury of his own.
The running back position was possibly even worse, having to play Joey Iosefa in heavy snaps and calling veteran Steven Jackson off his couch.
An improvement in the 2016 rushing game could be as simple as just hoping for better injury luck. The return of Lewis and Solder will bolster the position, while the improved health of veterans Vollmer, Cannon, and Kline and the extra experience for Stork, Mason, and Jackson should pay immediate dividends.
Sometimes the answer to a major problem is as simple as a deficiency in talent. The line and running backs simply weren't good enough to succeed.
The line will naturally improve, but the running back position could do with an infusion of talent. A double-dip for the likes of Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley won't be necessary, but one strong runner would be welcome in the backfield. That alone could change the entire outlook for the Patriots rushing game.