The New England Patriots’ passing offense has struggled with consistency for most of the 2018 regular season, especially when it comes to personnel. One player that was available for each of the Patriots’ 16 games so far is running back James White. While his usage changed on a week-to-week basis, the veteran still finished the regular season with a team-high 87 receptions, which he took for 751 yards and seven touchdowns.
White saw most of his action over the first half of the season: between opening day and New England’s week 11 bye, the 26-year old averaged 8.9 passing targets per game. Since week 12, this number decreased to just 5.5 as a) Julian Edelman became a bigger part of the unit again, and b) the Patriots went through a string of games during which they put an emphasis on trying to establish a presence on the ground.
With the Los Angeles Chargers coming to town in the divisional round of the playoffs, however, White and fellow versatile back Rex Burkhead may see increased action again.
The Chargers defense, after all, has seen its linebacker depth depleted by injury and in general has had its fair share of issues this season when it comes to covering routes out of the backfield: the unit ranks 23rd in the league versus running backs in the passing game, when measured by Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. The raw statistics show that Los Angeles surrendered 110 catches for 1,026 yards and four touchdowns to backs through 17 games.
One of the common themes against the Chargers zone-based defense is teams attack the underneath areas with quick dump-off passes. Using this approach, the Denver Broncos’ backfield caught 22 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown in its two meetings with Los Angeles this year. A lot of the plays looked similar to this one:
The Chargers were in a zone defense, as can be seen, using a four-man rush and the second-level defenders dropping back into coverage. With Broncos running back Royce Freeman originally aligned in an offset position to the left of quarterback Case Keenum, he was given a free release after the snap and able to get open in the left-side flat. Chargers cornerback Michael Davis, meanwhile, was unable to react to the route immediately.
The play gained just four yards, but it represents a larger theme of the Broncos’ offensive attack that day: using the Chargers’ underneath zones as an area to target with the running backs. The two teams’ division rivals from Oakland did the same in their matchup against Los Angeles in week 10. As a result, the Raiders’ running backs combined to catch eight passes out of the backfield for 83 yards.
The idea is the same as the one the Broncos used in the clip above: the running back — in this case Jalen Richard — is sitting down in the underneath zones against a defense just slightly out of position against a shifty player. This is what the Chargers gave quarterback Derek Carr, and he gladly took it for a quick 6-yard completion and a conversion on 3rd and 2. Nothing fancy, just good old pitch-and-catch football.
The Patriots are no strangers to playing this kind of game. In fact, they did the exact same thing the last time they met the Chargers. In week eight of the 2017 season, Los Angeles came to Foxboro and was beaten 21-13. While New England had some offensive issues in this game — the team turned just one of its four red zone trips into touchdowns that day, for example — it used the running backs well to move the football.
Just take this play from the second quarter, a 14-yard completion from quarterback Tom Brady to running back Rex Burkhead in a 2nd and 11 situation:
In its most basic form, the play is similar to the one the Broncos ran above: the running back was offset to the left of the quarterback, getting open in the flat with the second-level defenders playing either in the deeper zones or those in the middle of the field. Brady did not take his chance elsewhere and instead went back to his hot read Burkhead, who was able to pick up steam and a new set of downs along the way.
Playing this kind of game, the Patriots’ running backs gained 120 of the team’s 192 passing yards in the first half. Los Angeles and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley reacted during intermission, and mixed in more man-to-man concepts, but New England still trusted the shiftiness of its backfield versus the Chargers’ linebackers or safeties. This 12-yard pass from Brady to James White is a perfect illustration of this:
Los Angeles went with a cover 2 man-to-man look across the board, giving White a one-on-one against linebacker Jatavis Brown. Brady apparently liked the matchup and went there, with the running back showing why he was picked by the quarterback as the third down target: White was able to get open on an out-breaking route, and held onto the football even when quickly hit by deep safety Tre Boston.
White and Burkhead both did damage against the Chargers last year, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was able to get them in a position to be successful. One formation in particular put pressure on the defense, a two-back variation set from a trips left shotgun alignment:
The Patriots used the package successfully in the second half to put pressure on the Chargers’ zone coverage and their linebackers in particular. On a 3rd and 10 early in the third quarter, New England was able to get running back James White open in space out of this formation for an 11-yard gain:
Just like on other plays we have seen, the running back released into the flat (with Burkhead doing the same on the weak side of the formation) and the quarterback passed him the ball after the defense was able to crowd the middle of the field and take away the other options. Luckily for New England, the linebackers again dropped deep into their zones which created space underneath for Brady and White (and Burkhead) to exploit.
In the fourth quarter, Burkhead also received a catch out of this formation — even though his was not enough to convert a third down. But while the play gained just 7 of the 12 yards needed to move the sticks, it still was a successful use of the overall concept of stressing the underneath coverage with the quick running backs:
Given the success they enjoyed last year with this plan, it would not be a surprise to see New England go with it again on Sunday: the Patriots’ backfield is still one of the most dangerous in the league when it comes to contributing in the passing game, while the Chargers’ linebacker corps — as mentioned earlier — has been bit hard by the injury bug this season. Throwing James White and company at it seems like a sound battle plan.
As an added bonus, this course of action also helps get the football out of quarterback Tom Brady’s hands quickly. With Los Angeles having one of the league’s best pass rushing duos on the edges in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, limiting their impact has to be imperative for New England. The blocking up front plays a huge role in this, of course, but having running backs that can serve as quick options in the passing game might also help do the trick.
All in all, it may not be the “sexiest” aerial attack, but one that can get the job done for New England on Sunday. And at the end of the day, this is all that matters.