Regardless of whether QB Jimmy Garoppolo can play at 75% health, or if rookie QB Jacoby Brissett will be under center, the New England Patriots will have to run the ball this Thursday night against the Houston Texans.
Fortunately, the Patriots had plenty of success running the ball against the Dolphins.
“In the second half they came out with a good scheme,” Dolphins DT Ndamukong Suh said about the Patriots. “They did a lot of cracking and got to our edges.”
“My offensive line did an amazing job,” Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount said after the game. “They're great. They worked hard. They've done everything they've needed to do to make sure they can go out there and perform and do their assignments correctly and when they do that, it's easy to run behind them."
The Patriots blockers certainly found their groove in the second half, although I wonder if the same opportunities will arise against the Texans. When you look at the Patriots running game, it was actually pretty simple.
We covered the concept of a “wide nine” defensive front prior to the game, which is how the Dolphins deploy their defenders. They put their defensive tackles in the middle, while the edge defenders are out beyond where a tight end normally stands.
The goal of the wide nine is to make the tackles break formation to make a block, but the Patriots had a perfect counter:
They kept TE Martellus Bennett in to block on one side and ran away from the unsupported tackle (Nate Solder in the above GIF). Bennett stonewalled the pass rusher and allowed the Patriots offensive linemen to double team Suh or attack the second level to eliminate the linebackers.
The huge gap on the defensive line between the tackle and the end is the perfect size for a pulling guard, and then Blount would enter the second level and just bulldoze the defensive backs.
This sort of strategy happened time and time again with Brissett on the field. You can see the Patriots running away from the unprotected tackle (Cameron Fleming in this case), while Bennett blocks the edge rusher and Blount follows the pulling guard. Instead of a fullback, the Patriots use Julian Edelman as an extra blocker in the middle.
The guard doesn’t pull on this play and both tackles are covered by tight ends. Bennett, again, took care of the edge rusher and opened up a huge gap for FB James Develin to pave the way for Blount, while RT Marcus Cannon did a nice job sealing the edge and reaching the linebacker.
Bennett, it would seem, was a huge key in the Patriots rushing attack. Bennett admits that he’s willing to wear as many hats as needed to come away with a win.
"I'm a blue collar football player,” Bennett said after the game. “Whether it's a 5-yard pass and you break two tackles and get 8 yards, whatever it is, that's what I do so. Man, I'm just here to play football and have fun. I'm just having a lot of fun right now with these guys. I love my teammates. I love the coaches. I love this environment and these fans and, for me that's all it's really about, just going out there and doing the things I love to do, and have fun doing it. I haven't had this much fun in a long time in the NFL and I think it's making a big difference for me. Because when it's fun, it's much easier to go out there and play.”
“One of the things they say is the more you can do, the more they'll use you on the field,” Bennett added. “So I just tried to show them that I could do everything whether it's pass, block, pick up blitzes, you know, catch the ball, outside inside. Whatever it is, I just try to show them that I'm able to do every single thing that I can possibly do to so that way I could be on the field."
Bennett was great as a pass blocker and made a nice pancake block to keep the pocket clea, but it was his pass blocking that caught the attention of the head coach.
“I mean he obviously made some big plays for us,” head coach Bill Belichick said about Bennett after the game. “I think probably the best thing he did was block. We were running outside quite a bit, running to the edge, and he did a real good job on that. [He] made some plays in the passing game; catches, run-after-catch, and blocking. He did a real good job for us.”
And even when the Dolphins kinda, sorta figured out the Patriots run keys late in the game, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels switched it up by running outside.
The Dolphins realized that their wide nine defensive front was vulnerable and squeezed their formation to a standard 4-3 front. The Patriots took advantage of the compact formation and stretched them out to the sidelines.
Bennett helps on backside pursuit here, but you can also see TE Clay Harbor, next to Solder, provide the key block on the edge to allow Develin to hit the second level and the defensive back, and Blount gets to do the rest.
Kudos to LT Solder for being a wall, LG Joe Thuney and C David Andrews for working together on the defensive tackle to allow Thuney to get the linebacker at the second level, and RG Ted Karras for slightly impeding Suh, even though Suh somehow made the final tackle.
Even though I said the Patriots running game was simple, the blockers still had to execute the plan- which they struggled to do in 2015. When they didn’t follow their keys, the Dolphins were able to make big stops in the backfield.
I would have expected the Patriots to run behind Cannon and Harbor on the right side of the formation, with Shaq Mason and Cannon combo blocking the defensive tackle, before Cannon reached the second level to seal the linebacker. Develin would have taken the defensive back.
Instead, the Patriots ran the ball right into the teeth of the Dolphins defense, where Miami had a distinct 5-on-3 numbers advantage and Blount was stuffed.
But the running game worked when every player stepped up and did their job against the Dolphins, whether it was a tight end, a guard, or a wide receiver.
The Patriots won’t be able to run up the gut of the Texans defensive front with the same ease as the Dolphins wide nine front, but if the Patriots can execute their blocks as well as they did against Miami, Blount will have a chance to have a serious impact.