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Pats Playbook: Dissecting the Patriots’ favorite running play

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Let’s analyze New England’s most common running play and its play action passes off of it.

Continuing my Pats Playbook series, we’ll now get into running plays. I’ll be focusing on how the New England Patriots block their favorite running plays against certain fronts with all the adjustments that they make. I’ll also be focusing on play action passes they run off of these running concepts, as New England has some of the best play action in the league: they’re very good at making their runs look like passes and vice versa, while still having good pass protection.

So here’s 1 back power, New England’s favorite running play of 2018.


A problem New England has had on offense has been being able to run effectively out of 11-personnel. Teams have lined up quicker and lighter linebackers and safeties in the box against New England’s three-receiver sets in order to cover more ground versus a potent passing attack. In 2018, however, New England ran 1 back power from 11-personnel very well.

1 back power offers the offense the ability to double a dominant interior defensive lineman like Aaron Donald, Chris Jones or Akiem Hicks. It also offers strong play action pass protection, as the double team is still there and the guard will pull for the edge. If you’ve ever wondered how Rob Gronkowski always gets so wide open over the middle off play action, it was probably a play fake off of 1 back power.

The Patriots will typically run this play when the defense has a 1 or 2i technique lined up over the weak side of the formation:

They do this because the center in the scheme has to block back, and a center blocking back on a 3-technique is, for example, very difficult.

2x2 set with single receiver in a tight split (1 back power)

The Patriots’ favorite way to run this power play is with a single receiver in a tight split. They do this because they can block the front-6 box defenders with their five offensive linemen and a tight end. They need a receiver to block the seventh guy (usually a safety), however, so the receiver has to be in a tight split to be close enough to get a hand on him. If the safety is deep, the receiver will block the cornerback but still keep an eye on the safety in case he comes down into the run fit.

2x2 set with single receiver in a tight split (play action tight end release)

When New England goes play action off of this run concept, they release the tight end on an over route behind the linebackers. The hope is to suck in these linebackers with the run fake and then throw it over their heads to Rob Gronkowski (at least in 2018). If the defense skates out to cover the tight end, there’s a deep curl or dig run by the receiver in a tight split and a flat route run by the back. Here’s a diagram:

Because the tight end released on the over route and thus can’t block the EMLOS (end man on the line of scrimmage), the guard has to pull for the edge/EMLOS. The offense will still get this strong side double team by the guard and tackle, which makes the pass protection on this play action pass quite solid. The back will check the strong side for pressure before releasing to the flat. On the two-receiver side, New England will run a switch release post/wheel combination, typically just to get the weak side defenders out of the way.

Trips/3x1 (play action)

The Patriots will also go to trips or a 3x1 set where they have a wrinkle to the tight end over route play action pass. They’ll still run that play, but also go to a counter where the tight end releases on a corner route. New England tends to go to this way when the linebackers are aware of the tight end’s inside breaking over route. This creates a high low read on the slot defender, as the slot receiver will run an out route to try and open up that corner area where the tight end will be.

If the defense is still able to take the tight end away, the QB can check it down to the back over the middle.

1 back power play action (Y stay/lock)

The Patriots can also go play action by faking power via keeping the tight end in to block instead of releasing him on an over or corner route. This creates an even more realistic run fake, but takes away the main receiving threat. To account for this, New England will run a slant or deep dig/post by the solo-side receiver, hoping to get an open throwing window behind the second level defenders who have to respect the pulling guard.

If that isn’t there, the quarterback can go to the two-receiver side where they will run a few different route concepts (slant flat, hitch seam, post wheel). Usually, the linebackers and other second level defenders get sucked in hard by this run fake, opening up one of these routes.

Trio

The Patriots will run 1 back power out of a trio formation too with three receivers to one side and the tight end isolated on the other. Rather than blocking the seventh box defender with a receiver in a tight split, New England will leave that seventh man unblocked if it is a cornerback because they know that their backs can win that one-on-one if the other six defenders are blocked well.

2 tight end sets

New England can run this same 1 back power and play action out of 12-personnel as well (1 back, 2 tight ends), either with a tight end on both sides of the formation or two on the same side. In typical Patriots fashion, the routes in 11-personnel and 12-personnel end up in the same spot, just with different players and alignments:

Counter weak

Here’s a bit of a counter play New England runs instead of 1 back power. Rather than going to the tight end side, they’ll block down and pull the guard and tight end to the weak side. This creates some powerful play action fakes with two pullers and switches up New England’s tendency to run 1 back power to the strong side out of this formation:

Bench (double outs)

When New England goes to their 2x2 formation with the single receiver in a tight split, the team will sometimes run this quick three-step pass, again as a switch-up to their frequently used run power play. Because the single receiver is tight to the formation, the cornerback lined up over him has to play off and give cushion. The Patriots take advantage of this by sending their tight split receiver and tight end on quick outs.

Bear front

When New England faces a bear front that features a nose and two 3-techniques, they can still run 1 back power, but the blocking assignments must change. The guard will pull for the Mike linebacker while the rest of the offensive linemen block down. Because the center’s block back on the weak side 3-technique is a difficult one, the back side tackle will typically double-team the weak 3-technique since the edge rusher is too far from the play.

They will still use a tight split receiver to block the seventh guy in the box and get a good one-on-one in space for the running back.

Extra play

Here’s one more power play that was interesting that New England ran last year in Buffalo. The Patriots use 1 back power as they typically do, but they will have the back pitch the ball to the single side receiver on a reverse. The running back will then block the cornerback lined up over the receiver running the reverse. Tom Brady here actually blocks the backside contain defender as the tackle climbs to get the weak side linebacker. This, in turn, allows Julian Edelman to get to the edge with lots of space:

The ability to run effectively and gain 4-6 yards on running plays out of 11-personnel is very advantageous for any offense. And for the Patriots, being able to do that with 1 back power in combination with very convincing play action off of the same run that offers good pass protection is even better. As the league’s linebackers become more and more like big safeties, opportunities have opened up to run some power football. We all know that Bill Belichick is always adapting and it seems like his next move is to punish these lighter second-level defenders.

With the loss of Rob Gronkowski, I’m not sure what will change about this scheme, but there is a clip of Jacob Hollister catching one of Gronk’s famous over routes off play action in Tennessee last season, so it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Benjamin Watson or Matt LaCosse having some success in that role as well.


The Patriots’ fullback lead iso play is up next in the Pats Playbook series!