New England Patriots running back Mike Gillislee has not had the impact many expected in 2017. Sure, he has 246 rushing yards and 4 rushing touchdowns through five games, but that’s a steep decrease from the 393 yards and 5 touchdowns that LeGarrette Blount had through five games in the Tom Brady-less 2016 offense.
Heck, Blount had 353 yards and 5 touchdowns in the first five games after Brady’s return and now has 344 yards and 2 touchdowns with the Philadelphia Eagles. It’s worth considering what has caused Gillislee to perform below expectations and what can be done to fix the Patriots running game.
The Patriots have 495 rushing yards and 5 rushing touchdowns through five games, for a 99 rushing yards and a touchdown average each week. The Patriots set off on a similar start in 2015 with 486 rushing yards and 7 rushing touchdowns through five games, but it’s been a while since the Patriots run game has been this unreliable.
The 2000-02 Patriots and the 2005 Patriots are the only other Patriots teams to have fewer rushing yards through five games, and those teams along with the 2008-09 rushing attacks are the only ones to average less yards per carry. It’s also worth noting that the 2016 Patriots averaged 3.88 yards per carry through five games, versus 3.87 yards per carry by the 2017 Patriots, but they didn’t have the benefit of Tom Brady under center.
So what’s the problem? Gillislee averaged 5.70 yards per carry over the past two seasons with the Buffalo Bills, but that rate has dropped to 3.57 yards per carry with the Patriots. What’s responsible for that decline in 2.13 yards per carry?
According to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Gillislee is facing 8 or more defenders in the box on 47.8% of his carries, the second-greatest rate in the league behind the Jaguars’ Chris Ivory (52.6%). That’s a small increase over what Blount faced with the Patriots last season (43.1%), but it’s not noticeably different from the 45.5% Gillislee faced in 2016. In other words, he’s seeing just as many stacked boxes by the opposing defense.
But maybe those stacked boxes were different because of the running threat of Bills QB Tyrod Taylor. While teams prefer to stack the box against obvious rushing attempts, Gillislee received the majority of his carries out of the shotgun; teams are 4-times more likely to throw out of the shotgun, so stacking the box was likely a response to Taylor’s mobility and not a defense of Gillislee.
Gillislee only received 26.8% of his carries from under center with the Bills, and that number has spiked to 94.1% with the Patriots. In other words, teams were less certain that Gillislee was going to be the ball carrier when he was in the Bills offense than they are with the Patriots offense.
And it shows in the raw stats. On runs up the middle, Gillislee averaged 5.80 yards on 59 carries with the Bills and had just 4 plays for 0 or fewer yards in 2016 with the Bills. Those numbers have dropped to 2.84 yards on 32 carries and 9 negative plays with the Patriots. Those are striking declines in efficiency- almost 3 yards per carry!
Gillislee does better on runs to the outside than to the inside with New England. On 35 carries outside, he has averaged 4.31 yards per carry- but that’s still a drop from the 5.46 average yards on 41 carries with Buffalo. It doesn’t hurt that the Bills offensive line provided an extra 1.14 yards before contact more than the Patriots line, which makes up most of the difference.
Part of the struggles comes with the Patriots offensive line. While they’re technically all good run blockers, it seems like a different lineman is struggling on each run play. There’s never a case where all five blockers vanish, but they seem to rotate which crucial blocker will allow the play to fail each time.
Sometimes it’s Joe Thuney’s or David Andrews’ inability to hold their ground against a bigger nose tackle. Other times it’s Nate Solder losing a technique battle with a speed rusher around the edge. And then there are times where Shaq Mason is not long enough to reach his defender to seal the gap, or Marcus Cannon is not quick enough to block his man, although their errors in the run game are far less frequent.
One key difference for Gillislee is how the Patriots rely heavily on man blocking schemes (more than any other team in the league in 2016), while the Bills ran a fair balance of both zone and man. Without Taylor sharing the backfield and without the balance of play calling, there are so many more ways for the defense to key on Gillislee as the ball carrier.
And another difference is how Gillislee has approached the line of scrimmage. In 2016, he spent an average of 2.8 seconds behind the line of scrimmage and was a lot more patient for his blocking lanes to open. This year, he’s hitting the line in 2.6 seconds (7th fastest in the league) and he’s running an extra 30% horizontally for each yard that he gains vertically.
Now if the Patriots blockers were able to create the running lanes quickly or were able to eventually open up lanes when moving horizontally, that would warrant hitting the line of scrimmage at Gillislee’s current pace.
But we can go back to the stacked boxes to see the problem. Of the 27 running backs that run four or more yards in total distance traveled (ie: horizontal yards) to gain a single actual rushing yard (ie: vertical yards), no player saw a stacked box more frequently than Gillislee. The average player in this category saw a stacked box just 28.9% of the time, or just 60% of the time compared to how often Gillislee saw them.
Based on the opposing defenses that Gillislee is facing, those lanes simply aren’t going to open up like they do for other runners. There is less space to roam and a greater chance that one of his blockers will mess up close to the line of scrimmage, ending the play.
So how can the Patriots fix the problem? They need to diversify their playcalling when Gillislee is on the field. They hand the ball to Gillislee nearly 60% of the time he is on the field- hence why defenses stack the box- so they need to find ways to prevent defenses from keying in on the running back. As Brian Phillips also pointed out today, Gillislee often gets the ball in packages that scream “the Patriots are running the ball!”
Now this also means that they have success using the play action- the Patriots average 0.78 yards more per passing play with Gillislee on the field, second-best on the team behind only Dion Lewis (0.96)- but they should run a few delayed screens to Gillislee to keep the linebackers off balance.
Gillislee is one of seven players to see 8 or more defenders in the box 40% of the time or more. The Patriots need to start drawing up plays that force defenders out of the box to give Gillislee more room to run.