To borrow from one of Amercia's largest insurance companies: “If you have Tom Brady as your quarterback, you throw the ball. It's what you do.” Indeed and unsurprisingly, the New England Patriots are a pass-first offense given that they have the greatest to ever do the passing under center. The 2017 season is no different and the defending world champions once again rely primarily on their aerial attack to move the football.
Entering Sunday night's game against the Atlanta Falcons, New England called a pass on 61.9% of its offensive plays with none of the games seeing a run-pass-ratio favoring the ground game. Yesterday, however, the Patriots opted to change the script a little and go with a more balanced approach. It worked quite well and led to the offense's best and most consistent outing since week two.
New England ran a total of 67 offensive plays against the Falcons. Bucking the recent trend, the team went with only 33 pass plays compared to 34 runs (including three kneel-downs). According to Bill Belichick, the sheer volume of runs contributed to the statistical output it brought with it: “The more runs you have, the more yards you're going to gain,” the Patriots head coach pointed out after yesterday's 23-7 victory.
The Patriots ran the football efficiently throughout the game and gained a season-high 162 yards against a defense that gave up an average of only 102 rushing yards per game coming into Sunday's matchup. One of the reasons why New England was able to do that, per Belichick, was playing with a lead: “We hadn't done a ton of that this year, so that gives you an opportunity to run the ball more.” New England played the game on its terms, and it showed.
“We ran it in the fourth quarter which is another time where you can pile up some runs if you can make first downs,” Belichick said before acknowledging that this was not the case the last two weeks. Then again, being in a position to run is certainly different than actually being able to run – particularly with the opponent expecting it. But the Patriots were able to yesterday no matter who was asked to carry the load.
Behind strong run blocking performances by the offensive line, tight ends and fullback James Develin, New England's top four runners accounted for a combined 31 carries and an average of 5.1 yards per run. All members of the quartet – Dion Lewis, Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead, James White – saw between seven and 14 touches as the balanced usage allowed each back to stay fresh throughout the game.
This, in turn, also allowed the Patriots to maximize each player's impact in the situations they were put into: Lewis and Burkhead mostly served as the main men on early downs between the 20s. Gillislee was used near the goal line and to wear down the defense late in the game. James White was the top receiving back in third down and two-minute situations.
All four played between 13 and 26 of a possible 74 offensive snaps and with the exception of Gillislee were involved in both the passing and the running game. This versatility is what makes the group as dangerous as it is – and if used like yesterday brings a new dimension to the Patriots' offensive attack: If New England continues to use its backs like that, the team will be much tougher to defend than it already is.
Yesterday might therefore just have been a first glimpse into how the backfield will be incorporated into the offense moving forward. Intriguing, to say the least.