It’s easy to look back and second-guess some of Bill Belichick’s decisions in 2015, with the focus on the ground game during the Patriots final meeting against Miami in the regular-season finale being one that ultimately cost them home-field during the playoffs.
In that game the Patriots rushed the ball 21 times in the first half, gaining all of three rushing first downs on a day where Belichick obviously went into that contest desperately trying to fix a problem he knew needed to be corrected before it ultimately knocked them out of the postseason. It obviously didn’t go well and they were forced to abandon that strategy in the second half, although by then it was too late and the team finished with a 20-10 loss.
On paper, it was the right move and against a Dolphins team whose defense finished 28th in the NFL last season against the run, it seemed like the right opponent to try it against. The only problem was, Miami picked that day to be better than they had been for much of the season, shutting the Patriots down after newly acquired Steven Jackson carried 14 times for 35 yards, with the Dolphins holding him to 2.5 yards per carry.
Some people will argue that the strategy was ill-advised and that they should have gone into that game with guns-blazing trying to lock up home field to prevent the possible trip to Denver. There are certainly reasons to feel that way, especially given what happened in Denver. But at the time Belichick knew they had a big problem in an area where they were once able to push teams around, which didn’t happen much, if at all, in 2015. Unfortunately the lack of personnel both up front and in the backfield was just a problem too big to fix in one game, and by the time the playoffs came around, they were too one-dimensional to keep the Broncos’ defense at bay with no threat of a ground game to speak of.
Looking back at the numbers, things were a bit of a mess and it’s easy to criticize New England’s running backs. But the obvious problem was with their offensive line, which sustained significant personnel losses throughout the season and affected the numbers with all their running backs across the board. The reduction in attempts that gained three or more yards, upon further review, was noticeable, and there was a considerable drop off in that category from what they accomplished during their Super Bowl run in 2014.
In 2014, the Patriots ran the football in some form a total of 417 times when excluding kneel-downs (21), and were stopped for no gain or a loss 87 times, which equates to 21% of their runs where they failed to pick up a yard. When they did move forward, they rushed for 1-2 yards on 95 of those carries, which equated to 23% of their rushes and gained three yards or better on 235 attempts, good for 56%. Of those attempts, they broke off runs of 10 or more yards 38 times, or 9% of their carries.
In 2015, the drop off was significant. They rushed the football 364 times excluding kneel-downs, with their backs being stopped for a loss or no gain on 54 carries, which was surprisingly better than 2014 and occurred on just 15% of their rushes. However, on the positive yardage they had, they gained less than three yards on 115 carries, which equates to 31% of their carries, up nearly 10% from the year before. They also rushed for 3 or more yards on 195 of their carries, or 54% and had just 29 runs that went over 10 yards (8%).
Here’s a quick rundown of the totals:
2015 Rushing Numbers:
Total Carries: 364 (excluding 19 kneel-downs)
Total Neg or No gain: 54 (Percentage: 15%)
Total 1-2 yds: 115 (31%)
Total 3 yds: 43 (12%)
Total 4-5 yds: 61 (17%)
Total 6-10yds: 62 (17%)
Over 10: 29 (8%)
3 Or Less Yards Per Carry: 212 (58%)
Over 3 yards: 152 (42%)
2014 Rushing Numbers:
Total Carries: 417 (excluding 21 kneel-downs)
Total Neg or No gain: 87 (Percentage: 21%)
Total 1-2 yds: 95 (23%)
Total 3 yds: 47 (11%)
Total 4-5 yds: 69 (17%)
Total: 6-10yds: 81 (19%)
Over 10yds: 38 (9%)
3 or Less yards Per Carry: 229 (55%)
Over 3 yards: 188 (45%)
Where the problems get even worse is when you take into account the loss of both LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis, who obviously accounted for the majority of New England’s production in the ground game during the regular season.
From there, aside from Steven Jackson’s late season acquisition, it came down to Brandon Bolden and James White, neither of which had much success. Bolden carried 63 times for 207 yards, but was stopped for a loss or no gain 16 times, equating to 25% of his carries. White didn’t fare much better. Of his 22 carries, he was stopped for no gain or a loss on 5 of them, or 23% of his rushes.
But not all was perfect with Blount and one red flag when you look at his carries this year is the fact that out of his 165 carries before he went down, he was stopped for a loss 10 times (matching his 2014 total) and for no gain 9 times (up from 4 in 2014). Overall he rushed for under three yards on 44% of his carries.
Blount is a player who had a lot of success when he got into the second-level in terms of picking up steam and bowling over defenders, but the problem New England ran into in 2015 is simply the fact he had a tough time getting there.
The loss of Dion Lewis significantly hurt the Patriots ground game in 2015. (USA TODAY Images)
Meanwhile, Lewis’ loss was significant as he was one of the few players who really had success with the football in his hands when he did run the ball. He was stopped for a loss or no gain just six times out of his 49 carries (12%), and gained 3 yards or better on 36 carries, which accounted for 73% of his runs.
His loss contributed to Blount’s problems. In games 1-9, Blount carried 98 times for 447 yards (4.6 avg). In the remaining contests after Lewis went down he carried 67 times for 256 yards and his yards per carry average dropped to 3.8, as New England’s offensive line injuries grew and opponents having started to really key in on him with the threat of Lewis now gone.
Jackson didn’t fare so well over his few regular season carries. Of his 21 total rushes, he failed to gain three yards on 13 carries, 3 of which went for a loss. He gained three or more yards on just eight of his carries, which obviously wasn’t the spark the Patriots were likely hoping they’d get when they signed him, but by that point, there weren’t exactly very many options.
Fast-forward to the Denver game, and it’s pretty obvious how much of a problem not having any semblance of a running game was. With the Patriots throwing the football the Broncos had a field day against New England’s silent count, teeing off on Tom Brady on an afternoon where he endured 20 hits and four sacks. When they did run the ball, they didn’t have much success, being stopped for no gain or a loss on four of their 16 carries (excluding 1 kneel-down), or 25% of their rushes. The one player in that game who carried for 10-yards or more was Brady, with the rest of their backs each averaging under three yards per carry.
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP RUSHING TOTALS:
Tom Brady: 3 carries, 13 yards (4.3 avg), 2 Rushing First Downs
Brandon Bolden: 5 carries, 12 yards (2.4 avg) 0 Rushing First Downs
James White: 5 carries, 11 yards (2.2 avg) 0 Rushing First Downs
Steven Jackson: 4 carries, 8 yards (2.0 avg) 1 First Down (a TD)
Belichick admitted the lack of a ground game was one of their biggest problems that day, and although he tried to right the ship during that final game, it was ultimately an issue too big to fix with his top two players lost for the year.
As a result, expect that to be one of the key things addressed this offseason, whether it’s through the draft or free agency. It was hard to imagine how big the loss of both free agents Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley would be this season, although Lewis certainly appeared poised to fill Vereen’s shoes prior to his injury. Ridley’s was significant from the standpoint they didn’t really replace him, but re-signing him wouldn’t have done much good since he wasn’t able to bounce back from the knee injury he suffered in 2014. It certainly seemed to hamper him in his first season with the Jets, as he finished the year with 36 carries for 90 yards, averaging 2.5 yards per carry, his lowest career average.
For now Belichick and the Patriots will have to look long and hard at a solution heading into 2016, which might not include Blount and it’s tough to say how effective Lewis will be coming off his knee injury. Not much has been said about him recently but according to ESPN’s Mike Reiss, Blount was still seen on crutches within the last few weeks.
As a result, they head into this offseason with some serious questions and after watching the success Denver had in the Super Bowl against the Panthers, the ability to run the football needs to be a priority if they hope to make another championship run in 2016.
Posted Under: Patriots Commentary