New England Patriots running backs combined for 25 carries, 118 yards, and 1 touchdown against the New York Jets this past Sunday. Those 118 yards represent the most by the Patriots against the Jets since week 12 of 2012 and the 4.72 yards from scrimmage is the second-highest against the Jets of the Bill Belichick era, trailing a 5.0 YPC performance in week 11 of 2008.
Historically, the Patriots would never try to run the ball up the middle against the Jets powerful defensive line, instead favoring receiving backs like Shane Vereen and James White to attack the sidelines with passes serving as an extension of the running game. This past Sunday was different.
“When we had a fullback in the game and two receivers, then we saw their base defense, and we ran that quite a bit yesterday,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick explained after the Jets game. “We had a fullback in the game and we were able to, at times, have some decent runs against their base personnel.”
“I would say that our overall production through the years statistically has been better with our sub runs [3 receiver sets] than with our base runs [2 receiver sets],” he added. “But, I think that’s a little more balanced out this year in terms of production. In fact, I’m sure it is.”
In other words, Belichick and the Patriots have historically favored running out of sub formations with three receivers on the field in order to draw additional defensive backs to weaken the run defense. That strategy changed this past week thanks to successful runs by both Dion Lewis and Mike Gillislee.
I tracked the Patriots run formations over the course of the game and the findings revealed how valuable Lewis can be for the Patriots offense.
Lewis had 4 carries for 22 yards (5.5 YPC) in sub sets and 6 carries for 29 yards (4.8 YPC) in base sets. He had an additional goal line carry and score with zero receivers on the field. Lewis’ versatility and ability to produce in both the base and sub formations allows him to remain on the field for any and all situations and prevents the defense from keying on to a run or a pass prior to the snap.
“He ran great,” Tom Brady said about Lewis after the game. “He's gaining confidence every week. He ran with a lot of confidence in himself. It was great to see.”
“Whenever you get a chance, you have to make plays,” Lewis added. “That's my job. I was just happy to go out there, move around a bit, and help my team.”
Lewis is actually a big reason for the Patriots’ decision to run the ball up the middle against the Jets, with the Patriots averaging just 6.0 runs up the middle in the past six games without Lewis, versus 15.3 runs up the middle over the three games Lewis has played against the Jets. Maybe that’s because the Jets defensive line is bigger, allowing Lewis’ quickness to shine, but Lewis is definitely a key factor.
Gillislee and James White featured in less versatile formations. Gillislee didn’t run out of the sub formation (which I think needs to change) and had 8 carries for 37 yards (4.6 YPC) in base sets, along with 2 carries for 7 yards (3.5 YPC) with one receiver on the field. White had three carries for 23 yards with all three runs coming in 3-receiver sets.
But most importantly, after years of avoiding base formation runs against the Jets, the Patriots averaged a healthy 4.7 YPC over the course of the game and that success had additional benefits for the rest of the offense.
“We took a little bit of the edge off the pass rush by being able to have some productive runs,” Belichick said, “which is always a good thing.”
While I still think the Patriots need to involve Gillislee in the passing game (“He can catch the ball,” Belichick said about Gillislee prior to facing the Jets), the fact they were able to show a running play prior to the snap and still execute it at a high level means that the run game took a major stride in their ability to balance out the offense and allow the team to lean on players other than Tom Brady.
“I try not to look at it too much on a one-off, one-play basis or one series or sometimes even one game,” Belichick said. “But, we’re over a third of the way through the season, and I think that group has given us better run production than we’ve had in previous years, certainly against this team [the Jets].”
If the Patriots running backs can remain a part of the offense moving forward, and if Dion Lewis can continue his climb back to his early-2015 form, then perhaps opposing defenses will limit their pass rush to defend the run game- and that would subsequently help the Patriots offensive line to fix their pass blocking woes.
The entire offense works together as a single unit, with one facet complementing another, and the Patriots decision to run the ball against a team they historically have avoided running against shows they have confidence in the run game that they might not have previously had.
And that’s a scary thought for the rest of the league.