Analysis

New England’s Throwback Rushing Attack Is A Modern Day Mismatch

New England’s Throwback Rushing Attack Is A Modern Day Mismatch

One of the most captivating games in recent memory was this past Monday night’s matchup between the New England Patriots and the Buffalo Bills given the difficult weather conditions. I was fascinated by Bill Belichick’s offensive approach and kept wondering if he would have taken the same offensive approach if the weather was not an issue. While we won’t know the answer for sure, the Patriots ended the game with three passing attempts, which was the fewest in a game by a winning team since 1974. New England’s running game powered the offense as it has all season with the Patriots rushing for 222 yards on 46 attempts.

The Patriots run game has become one of the most multiple in the NFL as the season has progressed in terms of personnel, formations, and schemes. It is both schematic and physical at a high-level, which allows it to be the engine of the offense. Against the Bills, New England ran 49 offensive plays, of which 30 had six offensive lineman with 25 of them featured fullback Jakob Johnson. All but three of their plays were called runs, the large majority of which were rushes by running backs Damien Harris and rookie Rhamondre Stevenson. Discounting the five rushes by quarterback Mac Jones (three quarterback sneaks and two kneel downs), these two backs combined for 34 of New England’s 41 rushes. 

While watching the game, I kept wondering what New England’s plan B was if they were not able to execute their game plan of running the ball snap after snap after snap. Obviously, the run game was effective in controlling the pace and tempo of the game. You rarely see a team run less than 50 plays in a game, yet easily win the time of possession by more than 4 minutes.

One possibility for this game plan is that Belichick thought that Jones (who went to high school in Florida and played for the University of Alabama in college) would have trouble throwing the ball in severe weather and wind. Jones has played well this year, but hasn’t showcased a big arm that is crucial when throwing in blustery conditions. It is also possible that he believed the Bills couldn’t score many points against his defense that had given up just 26 total points in their previous four games.

Two of Buffalo’s most pointed weaknesses are a poor offensive line and an inefficient running game, leading to a heavy reliance on Josh Allen and their passing game for the offense to function. By shutting down their passing attack, which meant eliminating big plays, controlling the tempo of the game, and scoring just enough, the Patriots believed that that was the template for winning the game. So the more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion Coach Belichick would have deployed the same game plan no matter what the weather conditions were. He believed that that was the best way to win versus the Bills, and that was all that mattered. It sure would have been interesting, however, if Stefon Diggs caught that beautifully thrown ball by Allen for a touchdown in the middle of the 3rd quarter, which would have given the Bills the lead. 

Let’s focus on a few tactical points that had a direct effect on the Patriots approach, and let’s start with this — In today’s game, not many linebackers coming out of college have much, if any, experience playing against two back sets with a fullback as a lead blocker. The Patriots are one of a few teams in the NFL that run consistently out of two back sets often, and this was a major component of the Patriots run game. Fullback Jakob Johnson played 25 snaps against the Bills.

Out of 21 personnel (2 backs/1 TE), Harris ran 8 times for 113 yards; Stevenson ran 14 times for 47 yards. Harris’ 64 yard touchdown on 3rd and 5 on the Patriots’ third possession came out of 21 personnel on a staple New England concept I call pin-pull (I’m sure different coaches have different names for it). They were in the straight I formation and they ran to the weak side of the offensive formation against the Bills 4-3 front. One quick footnote: Buffalo had not played a defensive snap with 3 LB since Week 6; they had been an exclusive nickel defense until this matchup with the Patriots demanded they play bigger. Back to the touchdown — Left tackle Isaiah Wynn was the puller in the pin-pull concept and he kicked out cornerback Levi Wallace with Johnson leading on play side stacked linebacker Tyrel Dodson. Harris was able to find a lane down the middle and outrun safety Micah Hyde to the end zone. 

Harris’ 64-yard TD run also featured another tactic that was a foundation of the Patriots game plan — 6 OL personnel. On 30 offensive snaps New England went heavy with an extra offensive lineman. There was no mystery to what the Patriots wanted to do. They ran basic run game concepts — zone, zone counter, gap scheme, G-lead, trap, wham-trap, and pin-pull. They had good success running G-lead, pulling the front side guard with fullback Johnson leading. Harris’ 22-yard run to start Patriots’ second third quarter possession came on G-lead out of 6 OL personnel, with RG Shaq Mason pulling and Johnson the lead block on play side stacked linebacker Matt Milano. The Patriots featured tight end Jonnu Smith in the backfield, ran a reverse to wide receiver Nelson Agholor, and ran a jet sweep with wideout Kendrick Bourne. New England’s commitment to the run game forced the Bills, who had been exclusively a nickel defense the past few months, to play 28 snaps of 4-3 personnel. Belichick got the Bills to play differently than they had. That is not a minor point.

The Patriots have a top-tier running game despite lacking a truly dominant running back. They have the fourth most rushing attempts and sixth most rushing yards in the league despite their starting quarterback not factoring into their rushing attack. Jones has shown the ability to scramble for meaningful yardage when necessary, with 15 of his 32 rushes resulting in first downs, but he is not a threat on the ground. The combination of Harris and Stevenson has been the crux of the running game over the past five games.

Harris is a competitive downhill runner with short area bust and velocity and has already surpassed all previous career highs in 2021. Stevenson was drafted in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft out of Oklahoma and is also a decisive, competitive downhill runner with light, active feet for his size. He has shown the ability to get skinny and demonstrate short area burst through small creases at the point of attack, and you will see the Patriots get him on the perimeter at times to allow him to use his deceptive speed and velocity outside. The Patriots have played snaps out of Pony personnel with Stevenson and running back Brandon Bolden on the field at the same time, which presents even more options for their formations.

Though the offense has been centered on the running game, their rookie quarterback has also contributed to New England’s success this season. He’s played with a natural poise and calmness, trusting his protection, and delivering versus pressure. While he is not a high-level athlete, Jones has showcased some movement ability outside of the pocket when demanded. But his game is built on pocket efficiency — the ability to eliminate what is not there, to isolate where to go with the football within the structure and timing of the route concept versus the defense/coverage, and then to deliver with pace, touch and precise ball placement.

Currently the top seed in the AFC headed into their bye week, the Patriots are playing outstanding complementary football. With a highly successful running game featuring multiple concepts, a quarterback who is an executor and ball distributor, a defense that may well be the best in the NFL, and a head coach who game plans for specific opponents better than any coach in the league, New England is a tough assignment.

Aadit Mehta contributed to this story