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Film room: How the Patriots use play-action to get behind a defense

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Related: Film room: Jets will test Tom Brady’s chemistry with his receivers

The New England Patriots’ dominance in the running game was a big reason for their playoff run in 2018. During their three postseason games, the eventual world champions ran the football 109 times and gained a combined 489 yards on the ground — a respectable 4.5 yards per carry — while also scoring nine touchdowns. The recipe proved to be a successful one against the lighter defenses the team faced during the tournament.

Six games into the 2019 season, however, the Patriots’ ground game has struggled to get consistent results. Heading into the Monday night game against the New York Jets, the club is ranked just 21st in the league in rushing yards per game (101.5) and only 27th in yards per attempt (3.8). Despite the comparatively pedestrian numbers, however, the running game is still a vital part of New England’s offensive attack this season.

Why? Because of the play-action game. The secret is in the play design and how it is executed by the 11 men on the field: Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is drawing up play-action concepts that are nearly indistinguishable from “regular” running plays, which in turn puts defenders in difficult spots as they find themselves defending their assigned run gaps while they should rush quarterback Tom Brady or drop into coverage.

In order to achieve this, the Patriots use various play calls — with some of their favorite ones being as follows:

  • Back on Backer Iso Lead: New England assigns a fullback to block a linebacker at the second level, which typically indicates run. The Patriots actually use the same concept on play-action passes as well, however, giving the defense one fewer key to read.
  • One Back Power: This play uses the back-side guard and pulls him behind the rest of the offensive line to get to the second level and onto a linebacker. Pull blocks are a staple of New England’s running game, which makes it difficult for the defense to react accordingly when the football is not handed off.
  • Duo: The Duo concept is a misdirection play that requires the offensive line to block down to the weak-side of the formation with double-teams. The running back would usually follow these blocks, which in turn forces the linebackers to move forward or at the least hesitate to drop into coverage.

All in all, the Patriots’ play-action game has allowed them to successfully move the football down the field even when the ground attack is not posting the same impressive numbers it put up during last year’s playoffs. Teams, after all, still need to commit to defending the run even if New England is only an average rushing team when measured simply by statistical success. However, its role within the offense as a whole cannot be underestimated.