New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount is averaging 5.61 yards per carry (YPC) on rushes to the left side of the offensive line, versus a mere 3.56 YPC on runs to the right and 2.31 YPC up the middle.
Why is there such a difference?
It’s easy to point to the return of left tackle Nate Solder and the emergence of rookie left guard Joe Thuney as a point of change. Neither player was on the line last season, while both players on the right side- right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Marcus Cannon- were part of the Patriots awful line in 2015.
Is it really that simple?
I went through the tape and the numbers to figure out why the Patriots were having so much more success running to the left- and determined that the advantage is not as great as we might think.
Through three games, Blount has been the team’s primary rusher, so I will use him as my avatar for the Patriots rushing attack. I also used Pro Football Reference’s game play data for my statistical analysis and expected points added (EPA) references.
Fans that have watched the Patriots will correctly note that Blount has run to the left far more than to the right. He has 31 carries to the left, versus 26 in the middle and 18 to the right. This difference has been more prominent since the return of Solder to the line-up in week 2; the Patriots have more rushes to the left (27) than to the middle or right combines (26) with Solder in the line-up.
I think there’s a fairly simple reasoning for it: DT Ndamukong Suh and DL J.J. Watt.
That’s it. The Patriots decided they wanted to run away from them, so they did. It’s not an indictment on the right side of the line, but more a sign that the coaching staff isn’t going to waste their time challenging the best player on the opposing team.
In fact, if you try to recall the Patriots success running to the left, you might remember Blount running around the left edge. That was the play call to run out the clock against the Dolphins and it’s how he scored his big touchdown against the Texans. Blount has 113 yards on 9 carries around the left edge (12.56 YPC).
Those runs are absolutely behind the left side of the line, but we should note that the Patriots have run exactly one play around the right edge and it picked up 8 yards- it was called back due to an away-from-the-ball tripping call against David Andrews.
If we remove plays around the edge, we find the advantage of running behind the left side far less pronounced- and it actually doesn’t exist.
On runs behind the left tackle and guard, Blount has 61 yards on 22 carries (2.77 YPC), versus 60 yards on 26 carries up the middle (2.31 YPC) and 61 yards on 17 carries behind the right tackle and guard (3.59 YPC).
When you factor in down and distance, Blount’s expected points added on runs to the left and right are almost the same and are twice as productive as runs up the middle.
The team struggles just as much on runs to the left:
I think Cameron Fleming is supposed to seal Jadeveon Clowney (#90) to the inside, while Nate Solder gets to the second level to block #53. It doesn’t happen.
As it does on runs to the right:
Vince Wilfork just presses Shaq Mason off his chest to make the tackle.
The discrepancy in the yards per carry comes entirely on runs around the outside edge.
Yes, there is likely a reason for the coaching decision to run around the outside left that goes beyond avoiding Suh and Watt (although that’s a good enough reason for me). Solder is far more agile in space than Cannon and can attack the second level more easily.
There are also some concerns about running up the middle that makes it more difficult to run behind either guard.
Center David Andrews isn’t strong enough to consistently block off big nose tackles, so the guards that are asked to chip block aren’t able to peel off to the second level in time- and sometimes the guards are still learning the timing of when they should peel off. This results in clogged running lanes inside. The interior line is still young and learning and will improve as the season moves forward.
The success from running to the edge should be a surprise to absolutely no one, though. Blount is able to wear down defenses due to his size- he averaged 2.5 YPC in the first half and 5.0 YPC in the second half- but he’s at his best when he’s able to build up his momentum.
When the interior line is clogged, he is unable to get skinny and get to the second level. That’s why we see so many 2 or 3 yard gains on first down.
But when he’s allowed to run to the edge, he gets to hit the corner with a few steps to build up his speed. No defensive back wants to challenge him in the open field and the stretch runs to the outside highlight Blount’s strengths.
The Patriots will have to continue to run up the middle of the field for the sake of freezing linebackers for eventual play-action passes, but Blount’s success running the ball is less about left or right. It’s about inside or outside, and Blount is at his best when he gets to the edge.