Lazar: Patriots Rushing Attack Gives Defenses Plenty to Worry About

The Patriots are leading the league in both rush expected points added and success rate through the first three weeks of the season.

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The Raiders defense probably thought they had the Patriots’ rushing attack figured out in the opening quarter last Sunday.

New England’s offense had ten rushing yards on their first eight carries in the win over Las Vegas, featuring their man and power-read concepts that went nowhere. 

The first eight run play calls were as follows: draw, naked bootleg, jet sweep, power-read, man, jet sweep, and again, they only gained ten yards. 

After two punts and a Cam Newton interception, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels pivoted, flexing his offense’s versatility and the wide berth of runs in his playbook. 

The Patriots got their ground game going by ditching all the misdirection tricks and quarterback runs, returning to their identity with Tom Brady as an under-center rushing attack.

In the last three-quarters of Sunday’s win, the Patriots gained 231 rushing yards while averaging 7.5 yards per rush en route to a blowout victory against an overmatched Raiders team.

Although McDaniels downplayed the shift, the Patriots’ run game is one of the most diverse rushing attacks in the NFL, giving opponents plenty to prepare for each week. 

In their first three games, the Pats ran 16 different blocking schemes, each with unique wrinkles, quarterback read elements, and old-school under-center football that all change a little bit play-to-play. 

Here are those 17 concepts broken out by the main blocking scheme and the secondary concepts that add a different flavor to the staple plays: 

The diversity of New England’s rushing attack, along with a terrific running quarterback, capable running backs, and an elite run-blocking offensive line, is producing tremendous numbers. 

In the first three weeks of the season, the Pats lead the league in expected points added per rush (0.172) and are the only team that was successful on over 50 percent of their runs (52.1). 

Currently, the Pats are on a ridiculous pace. Even if it’s too early to say it’ll continue, especially versus steeper competition, they’ve averaged 233.5 rushing yards in their two wins. 

In their victory over the Miami Dolphins in Week 1, Newton ran the ball 15 times against a two-gapping defense vulnerable to power runs.

Last week, the former MVP only carried the ball eight times on designed runs, and two of those were quarterback sneaks, a completely different approach with the same result: a win. 

Along with putting different looks on tape for opponents to worry about, these Patriots are proving that they can do whatever it takes offensively to score points. 

Throw in a nearly 400-yard passing performance for Newton in the loss to Seattle, and the three game-scripts couldn’t be more different, while New England is a yard short from being a perfect 3-0. 

“Our philosophy has always been the same, which is to try and take our guys that we have on our side of the ball and the strengths that they possess together and try and maximize those each week against the opponent that we’re playing,” McDaniels told CLNS Media on Tuesday. 

“It’s a pretty simple philosophy, but it also incurs some learning each week of possibly some new things that we want to try and do that may give us the best advantage to have success. They [the players] deserve a tremendous amount of credit for being able to execute different styles of offense from one week to the next.”

Let’s break down all the blocking concepts for New England through three games, starting with the zone schemes that gave the Raiders defense problems:

WIDE ZONE (LEAD)

The Patriots found out early on that the Vegas defense wasn’t going to fall for their misdirection or allow their power runs featuring Newton to get going, so they changed things up on the fly. 

New England running back Sony Michel’s breakout performance resulted from McDaniels’s willingness to adapt the game-plan to what works, a testament to his acumen as a play-caller. 

Some play-callers would’ve stuck with what wasn’t working and banged their heads against the wall, but McDaniels went into his bag looking for a different angle and found one with Michel.

The Patriots’ two longest runs of the season, and Michel’s career-long, came on a lead zone concept that only gained an average of two yards on six carries in their first two games of 2020. 

Under defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, the Las Vegas Raiders are a one-gapping 4-3 system, meaning they want to shoot gaps at will and are susceptible to zone runs.

With zone schemes, the offense uses the defenses’ aggressiveness against them, getting them too far upfield, or overcommitting to one side, setting up cutback lanes for the ball carrier.

On Michel’s 48-yard career-long run, the Patriots are in a two-back set with fullback Jakob Johnson in the backfield (lead). The offensive line is blocking wide zone, which means they’re stepping towards the sideline at the snap, with the running back aiming towards the tight end’s outside hip. The key block here is by rookie left guard Michael Onwenu. Onwenu turns the three-technique, no. 97 Maliek Collins, inside despite his outside leverage, not easy. Rookie tight end Devin Asiasi kicks out the end, center Joe Thuney (WILL) and left tackle Isaiah Wynn (MIKE) immediately climb to the second level, and Johnson leads through the hole. Michel stays patient behind his blockers to set up the small cutback and then eludes the deep safety to add yards after contact. Overall, a beautiful display of blocking. 

The Patriots ran the same scheme on Michel’s 38-yarder, with the Pats running back showing excellent vision to cut outside of Johnson this time and then back to the middle of the field. 

WIDE ZONE (WEAK)

Another scheme that’s becoming a staple of the Patriots offense is single-back wide zone to the weak side of the formation, or away from the tight end. By going opposite the tight end, the Patriots have numbers to the left side if their center, Thuney, can reach the one-technique that has him out-leveraged. Thuney’s athleticism and skill allow him to make a block, and then it’s a hat-on-a-hat for Onwenu and Wynn, and Burkhead is rolling downhill. Thuney’s block is an excellent one and gets the entire play started. Like Onwenu above, reaching a defensive lineman that has you out-leveraged is impressive. 

SPLIT (INSIDE) ZONE

New England has always featured some split-zone action as a counter to their inside zone and trap schemes, as the blocking looks similar, but the point of attack is different. 

On this 13-yard run by Michel, the offensive line blocks like its standard inside zone, but the “sift” block from the tight end coming across the formation influences the second-level of the defense to slide to the left. Michel shows outstanding contact balance in the backfield to run through a tackle, and then the blocking angles are set up nicely at the second-level by Izzo’s block. Shaq Mason comes off his double-team to finish a combination block up to the linebacker, who is in a poor position because of the misdirection, and Mason easily washes him out to make a hole for Michel, who makes an excellent cut off the block. 

The Pats offensive line gets terrific movement, and Mason and others were excellent at timing and fitting their climbs to the linebacker level. 

OUTSIDE ZONE (SPEED OPTION)

Although it wasn’t prevalent in Sunday’s win over the Raiders, the Patriots will also incorporate speed-option with Newton making the read.

Here, the Pats bring James White into the backfield in motion. Newton reads the play-side edge defender, whose unblocked initially for right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor to climb to the second level immediately. Dolphins defensive end Shaq Lawson crashes down to defend a Newton keeper, so Cam flips the ball out to James White, who has Eluemunor downfield cutting down his defender in man coverage. The Pats gain seven yards on first down. 

INSIDE ZONE READ 

New England has one more read-option with Newton off zone blocking, running inside zone with a read element for the Pats quarterback.

On this five-yard pickup on first down, Newton holds the ball at the mesh point long enough to get Dolphins linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel to crash down on the running back. With Van Ginkel jumping the back, that leaves the edge for Newton to keep the ball and turn the corner. 

The Patriots have also added an RPO package that works off the inside zone-read, giving Newton a pass option.

MAN/GAP RUNS

The Patriots are notoriously a power or gap-blocking team, even though they do a little bit of everything, and now they have a 245-pound power runner in Newton to carry the football. 

QB POWER 

Some mistakenly think that all of the Patriots’ gap runs with Newton are power schemes, which isn’t the case, but it’s certainly one of their most effective play-calls this season. 

Here’s an example of the Patriots running straight QB power against favorable numbers in the box. On third and five, the Dolphins have five defenders in the box, one in man coverage on the back. When James White motions out, the Patriots have five-on-four in the trenches, and the double-team on the right side, along with Thuney’s pull, opens a huge hole for Newton. 

In power schemes, the puller usually pulls to the MIKE linebacker, but there’s no off-ball linebacker in the play above, so Thuney adjusts to kick-out the defensive end instead. 

The Patriots only ran QB power with no read element or lead blocker twice for Newton, but the play above shows how effective it can be since Newton can run it himself. It gives them a huge numbers advantage. 

POWER LEAD 

New England then runs a similar power concept out of their jumbo seven offensive linemen package. This time, with fullback Jakob Johnson in the backfield as a lead blocker. 

With four blockers to each direction of the center, the Pats are seriously stressing Miami’s run fits. The extra blockers allow the line to block down to the right, with Johnson kicking out the initially unblocked force defender, while Shaq Mason pulls to the MIKE in a more traditional power pull. Mason and Onwenu create a convoy for Newton, who runs behind his two bruising run blockers for an 11-yard gain. 

The Patriots also ran for a touchdown against Seattle using power lead, and have a few other counters on the goal-line that we’ll get to later. 

POWER-READ 

The next iteration of New England’s power scheme is a power-read, which is the same idea as a zone-read with the quarterback reading the defense, but utilizes power blocking instead. 

On Newton’s first carry as a Patriot, he gained ten yards off the concept. Once again, Newton reads the play-side edge defender, Kyle Van Noy, to make his decision. Van Noy stays outside protecting against the handoff to Burkhead, so Newton keeps the ball right up the middle. 

Later on, the Patriots went to the same scheme and got an even bigger gain when the end crashed down on Newton vacating the edge for Burkhead to take off running. 

Although Seattle and Vegas defended the power-read well, Newton shredded Miami with the concept in the opener, and will probably do the same against other two-gapping fronts.

ONE-BACK POWER 

Rounding out the power schemes is the Patriots’ under-center version of the concept where Newton is handing off to the running back.

On this 17-yard by Rex Burkhead, the Pats OL blocks one-back power flawlessly. The play starts with a people-moving double-team by the offensive line’s right side, Mason and Eluemunor. Then, Onwenu pulls through the hole to kick-out the MIKE, and Eluemunor comes off the double to combo the weak side linebacker. Burkhead must’ve been giddy when he saw the size of the hole opened up for him with his 340-pound left guard as a lead blocker. 

Before Newton arrived, one-back power was a staple run-blocking scheme with Tom Brady, and the Pats still hit big plays off play-action and now with RPOs off power action.

FULLBACK LEAD 

Another Patriots staple in the running game is a fullback lead play with Jakob Johnson or Ryan Izzo taking over for James Develin.

In the past, the Pats would hit this play between the left guard and left tackle, but now they’re running it with a sixth offensive lineman on the field (Onwenu). Izzo’s fullback alignment allows the Patriots to double-team on the line of scrimmage while he kicks out the edge defender. Onwenu helps Wynn leverage his block and then drops Elandon Roberts at the second-level to lead the way for Michel. 

The fullback lead play is another blocking scheme that the Patriots incorporate into their play-action passing game to influence the linebackers to come downhill at the lead blocker. 

FULLBACK COUNTER (CROSS LEAD)

There are a few differences between counter and power, but the main ones are the quarterback’s footwork and the puller pulling to the edge defender rather than the MIKE. 

Here, the Pats run counter with Johnson also pulling across the formation as a lead blocker. The two lead blockers allow Izzo to combo block by bumping the end inside to Onwenu and climbing to the WILL. Thuney kicks out Van Noy on the edge, Johnson wraps around to the MIKE, and Taylor makes himself skinny through the hole to pick up 11 yards. 

The Patriots will run cross-lead counter as they do above and sometimes have Johnson in a traditional fullback alignment on a more conventional counter handoff. Either way, it works well. 

QB COUNTER

Everything the Patriots do blocking wise now translates into a designed quarterback run for Newton, including counter, which pairs nicely with QB power on the goal line. 

In Seattle, Newton walked in for a touchdown in the jumbo package with seven offensive linemen. This time, the puller kicks out the edge, and Johnson leads through the hole to support Izzo, which gives the defense a different look from the power design above. 

Success in the running game stems from gaining a numbers advantage, which the Pats have above with six blockers to only four defenders to the left of center, and angles. 

By changing up between power and counter, the blockers are coming at defenders at different angles, making it difficult for them to anticipate where blocks are coming from each play.

CRACK TOSS 

The final blocking scheme in this section is the crack toss, which New England ran multiple times in Sunday’s win over the Raiders.

The word “crack” comes from the crack block by the detached tight end or wide receiver in the scheme. In this case, N’Keal Harry executes a great crack block on the defensive end, allowing Wynn to pull out as a lead blocker. Thuney makes another excellent block to reach the one-technique with favorable leverage, Harry gets the edge for Taylor, and Damiere Byrd helps seal the corner with a good effort. From there, Taylor reads the defenders flowing outside of Wynn’s pull and plants his foot in the ground to cut inside Wynn for a nine-yard run.

The crack toss was a brilliant way for McDaniels to get his ball carriers outside the Raiders defense, which was aggressively filling gaps between the tackles to stop power runs.

OTHER

Here are a few other schemes that the Patriots ran in the first three weeks that are in a miscellaneous category. 

NAKED BOOTLEG

Newton’s 11-yard touchdown run against the Dolphins was a straight naked bootleg out of Belichick’s game-plan for Jacoby Brissett against Houston in 2016. 

The motion and fake to Burkhead get the second-level of the defense to flow to the left with the Pats running back, leaving plenty of green out the backside of the formation. Newton picks up the two blocks he needs, Mason’s cut block on the defensive end at the line which gets the edge, and Ryan Izzo blocking downfield on the outside corner. After that, it’s a race to the pylon. 

TRAP

The Patriots added a “trap” concept to Sunday’s game-plan against Las Vegas as another way to use their aggressive front against them.

Here, they’re running a tight end “wham” block with Izzo, where Mason is supposed to put himself through immediately to the second level while Izzo blocks the defender on the line. Mason gets held up before he can make his climb, but Michel makes an excellent read to hit it backside with the defense flowing to the strong side action. 

DRAW

McDaniels dialed up a few draws against the Raiders’ one-gapping front, and New England was successful on those runs as well. The delayed draw gets the defensive line to pass rush while the backend defenders drop into coverage, giving J.J. Taylor a tractor-trailer sized hole to make something happen. 

JET SWEEPS

Finally, the Patriots will stress defensive backs by incorporating quick-hitting jet sweeps that add another misdirection element. 

McDaniels will then build counters using pre-snap motion as eye candy to manipulate the defense into running themselves out of position. 

Now that we’ve taken you through all 17 schemes, imagine being a defensive coordinator or opposing linebacker that has one week to prepare for everything the Patriots throw at you.

On top of the schemes’ diversity, the players deserve most of the credit for their execution both as blockers and ball carriers, making New England’s rushing attack an absolute beast.