There's a question being asked a lot this week: Are the New England Patriots becoming more of a running team?
It's a legitimate question after they ran for 247 yards, had two 100-yard rushers and averaged 6.2 yards per carry last week in their 52-28 rout of the Buffalo Bills.
But in reality, the Pats just took what the opponent gave to them, a smart quarterback winning the game of mental gymnastics against Bills defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt.
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The Bills basically challenged the Patriots to run against the defensive alignments they used, trying to slow Tom Brady's passing game. New England said fine, and ran it right at them.
In theory, the Bills' defense of choice made sense. After all, you would think if you could slow Brady you could win the game. Problem is, they didn't slow him, either. Brady threw for 340 yards and three touchdowns.
Buffalo used four down linemen, one real linebacker and converted safety/linebacker Bryan Scott next to him. They used five defensive backs for most of the game.
The result was a New England freight train running through the defense. Both Brandon Bolden and Stevan Ridley went for over 100 yards against the Bills. The great thing about the Patriots was their commitment to run it. Even down 21-7 in the third quarter, they stayed with the running game.
Take a look at the play below. This was the second play of what turned out to be a touchdown march to make it 21-14. It was a 27-yard run by Bolden.
The Patriots initially lined up with a one-back (Bolden, blue circle) look behind Brady, but Rob Gronkowski (yellow circle) motioned to an offset position next to Bolden, setting up the key block on the play on Scott (black circle). The Bills were in a 4-2-5 look, which meant the smaller Scott had to take on the 280-pound Gronkowski in the hole.
As you can see from the picture below, the play worked perfectly. Center Ryan Wendell and left guard Donald Thomas got a big double on defensive tackle Alex Carrington (red circle) to open up the lane. Right guard Dan Connolly (blue circle) got good initial push on defensive tackle Spencer Johnson. That left Scott (black circle) in the hole for Gronkowski (white circle). Sebastian Vollmer, the right tackle in the yellow circle, mauled Mario Williams. Deion Branch (black X) came over and gets a block on safety George Wilson to help spring Bolden for the big gain. He also made cornerback Aaron Williams miss to tack on big yardage.
Here's another play on the next series, helping set up another touchdown to tie the score. This time, Bolden went left through a huge cavity. He was in a one-back set behind Brady and the Bills were once again in the 4-2-5 look. This time, left tackle Nate Solder got a kick-out block on end Mark Anderson. Thomas blocked down on Marcell Dareus, Wendell got a block on linebacker Nick Barnett and Gronkowski got the key block on safety Jairus Byrd (red line). That time, Gronkowski came across the formation to get a crushing block on Byrd.
As you can see, the hole is huge. The only person between the end zone and Bolden is Wilson and he overpursues the play, allowing Bolden to cut back some for a 20-yard gain.
Eventually, the run set up the pass. On the next play, you can see that Scott (yellow circle) took a false step on the play fake to Bolden and Gronkowski (blue circle) ran right by him. Scott did try and hook him as he ran by, realizing his mistake.
The bottom line about the Patriots is this: If you dare them to run, especially with small converted safeties playing linebacker, they will eat you up. Scott probably spent a lot of time in the hot tub Sunday night and Monday morning.
So to answer the question about whether the Patriots are a running team or not, the answer is simple. If you dare them to run these days, they can. But this is still Tom Brady's team.
1. I love the anatomy of an interception. Is it on the quarterback? The receiver? Or was it just a great play? Let's take a look at the Tony Romo pick-six he threw to Charles Tillman, who made one of the easiest interceptions for a score you'll ever see. The pass was intended for Dez Bryant, who appeared to run the wrong route, but it was Tillman's ability to fool Romo and Bryant that keyed the play.
The start of the play is pictured below. Bryant (yellow circle) is lined up wide left with Tillman (blue circle) appearing to be in press-man coverage. But before the snap, Tillman dropped off and safety Chris Conte (red circle) rolled up to the line of scrimmage as a blitzer, a free runner. Romo obviously saw that, which is why he threw quickly.
But as you can see from the next frame, Bryant ran a stop-and-go, failing to realize that Romo was throwing hot because Conte was bearing down on him. Tillman just sat in the short area and picked off the pass for an easy score. The interesting thing is that if Romo and Bryant were on the same page, and throw a quick deep pass over Tillman's head, there is no way rotating safety Major Wright could get over and make a play. This easily could have been a touchdown the other way.
2. You might think of the Falcons' offense as wide open -- especially with Matt Ryan as an early favorite in the MVP race -- but on one first-and-10 play against the Panthers, Atlanta had seven offensive linemen on the field, four to the right of the center. The two extra linemen were Mike Johnson and Joe Hawley. It didn't work the first time, though, as Michael Turner ran for 1 yard. All the Panthers did was put nine in the box and corner Josh Norman was able to come up and tackle Turner. But the Falcons used the formation a few other times and had some success. The Falcons also used Hawley as a lead blocker in the fullback role and he did a nice job at times.
3. It would be easy to pin all the Jets' offensive woes on quarterback Mark Sanchez after New York was shut out by the 49ers. But after studying the tape, it's hard to imagine any quarterback having success that day. The Jets' receivers didn't win (maybe getting open a handful of occasions), the line didn't play well and Shonn Greene misses the hole more than any back in the league. If the play is called to go to the front side, Greene will go there no matter what. There were several plays where he had a lane to run, and he chose the straight-ahead path, right into the traffic. Pictured here are two examples.
4. It had to kill the Jaguars to see Bengals safety Reggie Nelson making good plays against them. Nelson was a first-round pick of the Jaguars in 2007, but didn't pan out, in part because he wasn't a hard worker. But he has improved greatly with the Bengals and had two impressive plays last week. On a run play, he took on fullback Greg Jones, one of the best blockers in the game, and shed him to make a tackle on Maurice Jones-Drew. Later, he read a screen pass and sprinted to make a tackle on Rashad Jennings for no gain. Nelson has never been considered a big hitter, but he has improved as a tackler in Cincinnati and he has the range to chase down plays.
5. The Broncos threw a lot of blitz looks at the Raiders last week, basically saying, "We don't think Oakland's receivers can win down the field." And it worked. They got after Carson Palmer. I liked some of the things defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio did. Several times, he had all of his front seven players standing up, moving around, making it hard to figure out who was rushing and who was dropping into coverage. That seemed to confuse the Raiders' line. Then Del Rio would blitz a corner off the edge, with Chris Harris getting a sack that way. It helped that Oakland right tackle Willie Smith was overmatched all day long. He is playing for the injured Khalif Barnes.
6. The Jacksonville Jaguars have two sacks for 4 yards, which means they aren't exactly the whip-your-man type. So what gives? How come they can't get pressure? A study of the Bengals-Jaguars tape shows why. They aren't winning. Nobody. The Jaguars have a first-round pick, a second-round pick, a third-round pick and an expensive free agent starting on their line and nobody seemed to get off blocks against the Bengals. When you have that type of investment in a line, and you love to play coverage rather than blitz, they better get home -- and these guys are not. I do see flashes from rookie end Andre Branch, but his game needs refining. The Jaguars drafted defensive tackle Tyson Alualu in the first round in 2011. They passed on Jason Pierre-Paul to do so. Alualu is a solid player, but clearly not worth the pick they used to get him.
7. Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake was sensational against the Cardinals. He was credited with 4½ sacks -- the half should have been a full one for Koa Misi -- but he was as explosive coming out of his stances as any end this season. Cardinals rookie Bobby Massie had no idea how to handle Wake's speed out of his stance. On one of his sacks, Wake got off so quickly that he looked to be offside, but he wasn't. When Jared Odrick got a sack late, it was because Wake forced Kevin Kolb up into the pocket.
8. I was banging the drum for Eric Weddle long before most, but to me he's the prototype for the modern safety. A former corner, he has the range you need in this passing league, and he's smart enough to anticipate throws. His pick last week against the Chiefs is a perfect example of that. The Chiefs lined up with Dwayne Bowe lined up wide left in man coverage with Antoine Cason. Before the snap, they motioned tight end Tony Moeaki to the left slot. The Chargers were in what looked to be man coverage with two safeties over the top. But at the snap Atari Bigby rolled to the deep middle, Cason bailed deep and Weddle dropped into the mid-zone area on the right side of the defense. It was three-deep, three under. As Moeaki ran into the seam, Bigby and linebacker bracketed him. Weddle would normally run with him in that situation, at least based on prior looks. But Weddle gambled and read Matt Cassel's eyes, and jumped when Cassel tried to get the ball to Bowe. This type of play is why Weddle is the best free safety in the league -- yes, better than Ed Reed.
9. Boy, you hate to pound on a guy week in and week out, but what are the Carolina Panthers doing playing Haruki Nakamura at safety? He had another horrible day against the Falcons last week. On the 60-yard screen pass that Michael Turner took in for a score, Nakamura whiffed in the open field. He also was the one who mistimed his jump on the long play to Roddy White to set up Atlanta's winning field goal. And he was out of position on a touchdown pass to White. I just think the Panthers would be better off playing Sherrod Martin.
10. The Tim Tebow read-option was horrible against the 49ers. The reason is the 49ers had the right approach to defending it. They crashed their ends down to attack Tebow as he made his fake or handoff, and had the outside linebackers hold the point for him if he faked it and ran outside. On one read-option in the third quarter, Justin Smith crashed inside to attack where Tebow was either trying to hand off or pull the ball from Shonn Greene, which he did. Patrick Willis scraped around to fill the hole just outside the spot vacated by Smith. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith held the point with D'Brickashaw Ferguson and eventually shed him to drop Tebow for 2-yard loss. The read-option gimmick has been figured out.
1. Bears DT Henry Melton: This former college running back continues to dominate inside for the Bears.
2. 49ers DE Aldon Smith: He had two sacks and was a force all day against the Jets. He whipped D'Brickashaw Ferguson in a big way on one of his sacks with a great inside move.
3. Bengals DT Geno Atkins: He dominated the Jaguars from start to finish last week. He and Melton are two ultra-quick tackles.
4. Patriots offensive line: Wasn't it only two weeks ago that this unit was coming under fire? Now look.
2. Jets CB Kyle Wilson: You don't replace Darrelle Revis, but at least you should play better than what Wilson did last week. Wilson's lucky Alex Smith missed a few deep balls to receivers who had torched him.
3. Chiefs QB Matt Cassel: He makes things look so much harder than they are.
4. Jets C Nick Mangold: He had big problems last week against the 49ers. Normally a power player, he was handled at the point.
5. Jaguars LG Eben Britton: He was horrible against the Bengals, leading to his being benched. He was coming off an injury, so maybe he was rushed back.
Three and outs
Three leading candidates to move to L.A.:
1. San Diego Chargers: Stadium issues make it this way.
2. St. Louis Rams: Do they fix up the dome?
3. Oakland Raiders: Have you seen the dump they call home?
Three things to love about West Virginia QB Geno Smith, who is now a potential No. 1 overall pick:
2. Arm strength
3. Ability to make quick decisions
With MLB's playoffs starting, three reasons why NFL is so much better than MLB
1. Games don't last four hours -- or longer.
2. Waxing poetic isn't nearly as bad in football.
3. No baseball stat geeks.