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Film review: Patriots on the verge of a running game explosion

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Evan Lazar takes a look at the Patriots’ running game against the Jets.

NFL: New England Patriots at New York Jets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last two weeks, the Patriots’ offense has scored just 21.5 points per game, which pails in comparison to its 32.3 PPG mark over the first month of the season. However, despite concerns about ball security and overall consistency, the Patriots’ running game seemed to find its stride over the last two weeks.

Taking a look at the box score, the Pats have averaged 115.5 yards per game and an impressive 4.8 yards per rush in Weeks 5 and 6. The running game success goes deeper than just the box score, however.

In fact, according to Football Outsiders, the Patriots’ offensive line is the #1 run blocking line in all of football, averaging 4.92 adjusted line yards, by far the highest mark in the league.

The offensive line, led by right guard Shaq Mason, has been terrific at the point of attack, but the success on the ground in recent weeks is also due in large part to fullback James Develin and tight end Rob Gronkowski.

In particular, Develin had a standout performance against the Jets, which we’ll get to in the film review.

As for Gronkowski, his ability to serve as essentially a sixth offensive lineman at the tight end position has been valuable beyond box score stats for years in New England.

The combination of good run-blocking offensive lineman, two extremely valuable assets in Develin and Gronkowski, plus a stable of running backs gives the Patriots a terrific formula to be successful on the ground.

Below, I will outline the specifics of how the Patriots were able to average nearly five yards per carry against the Jets.

The Hogs Up Front

Whenever you discuss the running game everything always starts up front with the offensive line, and as stated above, the Pats have a terrific group of run-blocking lineman.

The Patriots got a strong effort from center David Andrews against the Jets. Andrews’ ability to reach the linebacker on this run by Dion Lewis opens up the yards at the second level of the defense.

You also see both right tackle Marcus Cannon and right guard Shaq Mason run the Jets’ defensive lineman out of the gap. The combination leads to a relatively easy 9-yard gain for Dion Lewis.

One of the most devastating double-teams in all of football over the last two seasons team-up for another vicious block on this one. Marcus Cannon and Shaq Mason consistently combine for bone crunching double-teams. Jets defensive lineman Mo Wilkerson found that out the hard way on Sunday.

The block knocks Wilkerson to his knees almost immediately and the two Pats offensive lineman finish him off continuing to block the poor man while he’s down on the ground.

It’s a modest gain but you can see how this will create bigger runs in the future for the Patriots.

Unfortunately, one of the best blocking efforts of the game for the Pats came on Mike Gillislee’s fumble in the first quarter.

First, Andrews gets another terrific reach block on a Jets linebacker, knocking him right off his feet. Second, when you watch offensive lineman in the run game most of the time you can tell if it’s a good block or not by the direction of their bodies.

Look at Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon on this play. Both are able to turn themselves and the defenders they are blocking sideways, which opens up the hole for Gillislee. Whenever you see a lineman get their hips turned like that it typically turns the defensive player out of the hole as well.

Finally, this run is capped of by a very good block by Chris Hogan at the second level on Jets corner Buster Skrine. Blocks like that from your wide receivers are what produce explosive runs.

James Develin Shines

In my opinion, the most underrated and underutilized offensive skill player in the NFL is the fullback. Good offenses have good fullbacks, period.

Fullbacks serve not only as blockers, but the good ones allow offenses to be versatile out of power-run formations. With a good fullback, you can run or deploy the play-action passing game to the best of its abilities in an obvious running look.

The Patriots luckily have one of the best fullbacks in the game in James Develin.

Develin is huge factor in the Patriots’ power-running scheme, and they do a great job deploying him in ways that free up big runs.

Here, Develin’s ability to get to the block on Leonard Williams allows Shaq Mason to immediately climb up to the linebackers. Mason gets on the linebacker and pushes him downfield, and it’s a big run for Gillislee.

Similar usage here for Develin. The Pats fullback is assigned to the linebacker in the hole on this play, which once again frees up Mason to get upfield for a block. That creates a huge hole for Dion Lewis right up the middle, which leads to another big gain for the Pats on the ground.

The fact that a number of NFL teams don’t even have a fullback on the roster is baffling to me. The best offenses utilize them all the time; just look at the Patriots, Saints, Falcons, and 49ers with Kyle Shanahan.

The Niners don’t belong in the same category as the other three yet, but Shanahan is one of the brightest offensive minds in the NFL, and he loves him some good fullback play. In fact, the Niners signed two fullbacks to big contracts this offseason.

Rob Gronkowski in the Run Game

You can see Gronk blocking effectively in the sections above as well, but here are some examples of him specifically springing huge runs.

This is what makes Gronk so valuable as a run blocker. He’s got the athleticism to come across the formation and make a block like this, but also the power to actually be effective at it. In that sense, he’s almost more valuable than some of the offensive lineman.

Gronk’s block here saves a negative run for the Pats, and allows Dion Lewis to bounce off-tackle for a big run. The Patriots also get a good block downfield from Nate Solder on this play.

Here’s an example of the other way the Patriots typically use Gronkowski’s athleticism in the run game.

This second down draw came right before the half and opened up the playbook for the Patriots to be aggressive, and score before the half. This play is clearly designed for Gronkowski to release downfield immediately, and make the key block on Jets linebacker Darron Lee.

The Patriots know they have a weapon in the run game with Gronk, and it’s fun to watch the different ways that Josh McDaniels utilizes his versatile tight end.

Yards created by Running Backs

Lastly, let’s end this by giving some credit to the Patriots’ running backs.

The Pats’ ball carriers did a great job of taking advantage of some of the holes created by the offensive line, but also created some yardage on their own as well.

Let’s start with perhaps the run of the day by Dion Lewis. Lewis runs into the pile and appears to be done for, but somehow spins out of it and gets to the edge. Then, Lewis puts a fantastic hesitation move on Jets cornerback Morris Claiborne.

The little fake to the inside by Lewis gives him just enough room to the outside to pick up the first down. That’s 2015 Dion Lewis stuff right there.

James White got in on the fun with this absolutely filthy cut on old friend Darryl Roberts.

Much like Lewis above, White appears to be stopped for a short gain initially, but the right side of the Patriots’ offensive line, Rob Gronkowski, and Chris Hogan are able to cave in the Jets front and present the escape lane for White.

He then does the rest.

Conclusion

Entering the season we all expected the Patriots’ rushing attack to be a strength of this team. They added running backs Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead to an already talented group and have a strong run-blocking offensive line, a great fullback, and Gronkowski.

However, over the first month, we saw the unit struggle to the run the football, averaging just 3.6 yards per carry in the first four weeks to go along with struggles in short yardage situations.

That has changed over the last two weeks as the offensive line has started to separate itself as a run blocking group, while Dion Lewis’ role has increased and Mike Gilislee even appears to be more comfortable in the Patriots’ run schemes.

Over the last 10 games or so you have to wonder if the Patriots become an offense that rushes for first downs and passes for touchdowns. They have missed Julian Edelman’s ability to be a possession receiver that moves the sticks consistently, and that has turned them into a boom or bust offense.

For years we have seen the Patriots use the short passing game as an extension of the run game, but without a consistent short passing attack, the Patriots may be better suited to flip that script.

They can run behind their strong run-blocking offensive line to move the chains and create manageable second and third downs, and then open up the passing game with big-play threats such as Brandin Cooks and Rob Gronkowski.

A bigger commitment to the run would also aid an already potent play-action passing attack, something that suits Tom Brady extremely well.

When you have the greatest quarterback of all-time it’s difficult to turn around and run the ball 30 times a game, but the Patriots’ running game is on the verge of breaking out, and that would be a huge development for the Pats moving forward.