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Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount struggles in September, but dominates in December

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The Patriots need their rusher to play better than ever before

Pulpiteer Ray Blake asked me to write a follow-up article after I noted that New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount is the most efficient rusher in team history. Blount is the franchise leader in yards per carry at the running back position which implies a certain level of efficiency, but it lacks real context.

Danny Woodhead has far fewer carries as Blount since he served in the 3rd down receiving back role, but he averaged more yards per carry. This is to be expected, though, because teams are more likely in pass-heavy defensive packages on 3rd down, making it easier to run against. Teams will also be happy to watch teams run on 3rd-and-long since the conversion rates are low.

In other words, Blount’s ability to pick up yards on first and second down are generally more impressive than Woodhead’s ability to pick up yards on third down, in the same way that picking up 3 yards on 3rd and 1 is more impressive than a 3-yard gain on 1st and 10. Context is important.

So I’ve decided to look into something called “expected points added”, which is a way to see how much value a rushing play adds to a drive. The model, using Pro Football Reference data, looks at the average points a team has scored in any given scenario (ex: 2nd and 6 from the 27 yard line) before and after a play. The difference in the team’s expected points is the “expected points added” or EPA.

Blount has a relatively unimpressive 2.2 EPA score during his time with the Patriots, which means that the Patriots have scored a mere 2.2 more points than average with Blount on the field. It means he’s slightly above average, but far from “best back in Patriots history” level.

I spliced the data a bit to see how Blount fared in different scenarios- is he better on first or third down? Second quarter or fourth quarter? Fifth carry or fifteenth carry? September or January?

Here’s what we found:

EPA by Down

As fantastic as Blount is as a first down rusher, he’s equally worse as a 2nd, 3rd, and 4th down back. As a point of comparison, Stevan Ridley was the complete opposite back. Ridley was below average on first down, just above average on second down, and exceptional on third down.

This stems from Ridley’s ability to convert in short yardage situations on third down. Blount, on the other hand, has converted less than half of his third and fourth down attempts while with the Patriots.

This is partially due to offensive line ineptitude, but it’s also because Blount needs a few steps to get into stride and he doesn’t get that build up in short yardage situations.

On second down, Blount has gained 2 or fewer yards on 52% of his carries. That’s an ugly rate without an easy explanation and an easy scenario to point towards if you want to throw your hands up in frustration.

EPA by Distance

The chart mirrors what you would expect based on the down. Blount does well on first down (9-10 yards to go) and struggles with the shorter situations on 2nd and 3rd down.

For comparison, we can look at BenJarvus Green-Ellis’ contributions from his 2010 season:

In all honesty, this chart makes me highlight the importance of a great offensive line more than any running back performance. BJGE was a fantastic rusher for what the Patriots asked of him, but I don’t think anyone would confuse him for a game breaker- but these numbers show that BJGE was an above average rusher in almost every distance.

I wonder how much of Blount’s inefficiencies at the middle distances are due to poor line play since he joined the team versus his own lack of ability.

EPA by Carry

I created this graph because I thought it might help explain the idea of “feeding the beast.” In short, does Blount do better when he gets more carries to wear down the defense?

But this graph is pretty useless, in my opinion, because the carry total has no context. Sometimes carry #15 happens in the second quarter when Blount is playing the Colts, and sometimes those happen late in the fourth when the Patriots don’t care about yardage and are just killing the clock.

Here’s a comparison of Blount and 2004 Corey Dillon:

It’s not very helpful.

EPA by Quarter

Part of the original Blount post highlighted his ability in the 4th quarter. He averaged 5.42 yards per carry (YPC) in the final quarter, the 2nd best in the entire league since 2013.

What’s with the dip in the third quarter? Well, his worst play, by EPA, in a Patriots uniform came in the third quarter last week against the Cardinals when he fumbled the ball in the middle of a productive drive. Another awful play happened last season when he fumbled the ball on the goal line against Washington in the third quarter.

Perhaps it’s just a problem with a smaller sample size. 21.8% of his rushes have come in the third quarter, versus 28.2% of his rushes in the fourth quarter (yes, exactly 50% of Blount’s carries have come in each the first and second half). Remove those two ugly plays from the data set (even though you shouldn’t) and he’s positive in the the third quarter.

I think it’s important to draw attention to his fourth quarter contributions because this is why he should have the reputation as a closer. He can help on first downs and in the fourth quarter. He’s an important piece of an offense that can set up manageable second and third down situations for Jimmy Garoppolo, and then can grind out the clock in the fourth quarter.

EPA by Month

This is my favorite chart of the set. Blount gets better when it’s colder outside and when the games are more important. His size might not be as helpful in short yardage or when he gets more carries in an individual game, but it seems to count in the playoffs and in the cold.

So we might as well buckle down for another month or two of cringe-worthy contributions from Blount- he picked up 3 or more yards on just four of his 12 first down plays against the Cardinals. Just 27% of his rushes yielded positive EPA.

But those plays are going to magically start working when the calendar turns to December and January. Blount might not be the most efficient runner in franchise history, but he does a great job with a questionable offensive line and he puts forth a tremendous effort when the games matter most.

In fact, I have a theory about Blount. I think he puts together his best games when he feels like the team needs him. It’s why he doesn’t do well when he’s in a tandem with Stevan Ridley or when he’s playing second-fiddle to Dion Lewis- he doesn’t feel an urgency and you can see it in his play on the field.

But when he feels that the offense is on his shoulders- whether he’s central to the game plan in the playoffs, or he sees a teammate go down with an injury, or he’s needed to take pressure off of Jimmy Garoppolo- he steps up to the occasion.

This is where head coach Bill Belichick is so important; he needs to make Blount think every game is the most important, that Blount is needed on every single snap. I think Blount can be a big part of the game plan this week against the Dolphins. Let’s hope Blount feels the same way.