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The Patriots Running Backs Were Better Than You'd Think

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The New England Patriots like to pass the ball. A lot. That's not a surprise and opposing teams knew that and defended accordingly.

Per Pro Football Focus (PFF), no team saw six defensive backs more than the Patriots offense. Tom Brady and company were passing against six defensive backs a ridiculous 17% of the time in 2015. The New York Jets were 2nd with 8%. No other team saw more than 6%.

Of course this 17% dime opposition meant that the Patriots were facing lighter defenses than any other offense in the league. The same PFF article notes that the Patriots utilized two tight ends 41% of the time on passing plays, the third highest rate in the league. Any time a defensive back was on the field to defend a tight end meant that a linebacker or defensive lineman would be on the sideline.

This would, naturally, entice the Patriots to run the ball. We saw that happen over the final few weeks of the season, and we saw the Broncos take advantage of the Patriots tendency in the AFC Championship game.

When asked if the Dolphins put an extra defensive back on the field in the season finale whenever the Patriots used a tight end, head coach Bill Belichick acknowledged that the offense was ready for the match-up.

"It's pretty consistent to what we've seen the last two weeks," Belichick said on the Monday following the loss to the Dolphins. "We saw a lot of it from the Jets and then we saw a lot of it from Miami on that match-up, yes."

"I'd say on paper you probably should have a better chance to run against that defense than a base defense," Belichick continued. "On paper that probably is true, yeah."

Unfortunately, the Broncos noticed that the Patriots wanted to run against lighter defenses and managed to entice New England to take the ball away from Tom Brady and the passing offense.

Pro Football Focus noticed an interesting, yet unsurprising, trend with regards to rushing yards and opposing defensive packages. When defenses have a lighter unit with more defensive backs, offenses can run the ball more easily. This offers a very interesting way to measure a running back's success.

For example, Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount carried the ball 165 times for 703 yards, or 4.3 yards per carry (YPC). That 4.3 YPC could be a great figure if Blount was facing a run-heavy defensive grouping on a regular basis, or it could be a terrible figure if Blount was facing eleven defensive backs. The context matters.

Per PFF, Blount picked up 3.9YPC against base defenses, a hair below the expected 4.1 YPC, as well as 4.4 YPC against nickel defenses, below the expected 4.6 YPC. Blount's saving grace was his whopping 6.5 YPC against a league leading 17 dime defense snaps, well above the expected 5.5 YPC.

In total, Blount's 4.3 YPC averaged out to be exactly what he was expected to produce.

It seems as if the Patriots transparent offense eventually caught up with the running game as teams stop worrying about New England running the ball with certain packages. Dion Lewis faced 5 or more defensive backs on a whopping 82% of snaps, while James White faced 5 or more 79% of the time.

The issue is that the Patriots passed the ball on 86% of White's snaps and 77% of Lewis', which meant that the offense never even tried to take advantage of the possible match-ups and defenses felt comfortable just dropping into coverage.

When the Patriots did run the ball, Dion Lewis' 4.8 YPC exceeded his projected 4.7 YPC. That was the 4th highest projected YPC in the entire league because of how many nickel packages he faced. So while we appreciate what Lewis was able to do on the field, he and Blount were picking up the yards that were expected.

White, on the other hand, picked up 2.6 YPC, horrifyingly below his expected 5.0 YPC. Yes, White was projected to pick up 5 yards per carry, the highest mark in the entire league. White faced a dime defense on 50% of his snaps, which shows how little opposing teams valued him as a rushing threat.

If this metric means anything to you, then keep in mind that some of the hottest tickets on the market fare extremely poorly by this measure. Free agent running back Alfred Morris ranks 39th out of 53, while Joique Bell ranks 46th. Chris Polk ranks an ugly 51st.

On the other side of the spectrum, free agent rusher Doug Martin ranked an awesome 4th and restricted free agent C.J. Anderson ranked 14th.

It's crazy to think that both Lewis and Blount performed as expected this season, even with the offensive line disarray, and there's reason to believe that the rushing game could success next season with the same cast of characters. It also shows that while White is a tremendous receiver, his single-faceted ability means that he's not a roster lock.

I think this is a truly fascinating study and worth a look.