The New England Patriots, after briefly dropping below .500 on the season two weeks ago, have righted the ship to take back the AFC East lead after their 31-21 victory over the Denver Broncos on Sunday.
Tom Brady and the Patriots' passing attack is well-known to be the primary driver of the high-powered offensive machine that has dominated the league for years, but New England may be using a little different of a formula this season. In their past two games, both convincing victories, the Patriots have dedicated themselves to running the ball, but in a way that separates how they do it from other teams.
Typically, when running the ball, an offense will pace itself to provide an opportunity to determine blocking assignments and allow the quarterback to choose from a couple different areas for the running back to target. Instead, the Patriots are applying the same principles from their no-huddle offense to run the ball.
New England ran strings of consecutive running plays, but seldom allowed more than 15 seconds to elapse before executing the next handoff. Brady would rarely adjust the call to the defensive front, instead allowing the cutback styles of tailbacks Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead to take what the offensive line creates for them.
Tremendous pressure was put on the Broncos' defensive line and linebackers to fight off blocks and make the play, while of course respecting the possibility of the play-action pass. Which, of course, was used to perfection.
On New England's first scoring drive, this strategy was on full display. After taking over at their own 16-yard line, the Patriots offense drove down for an 8-yard touchdown pass to Wes Welker. They ran seven running plays to five passing plays, and only faced one third down.
Here, at the end of a 7-yard gain by Ridley on first down, there is 7:22 on the game clock.
At 7:09, just 13 seconds later, Brady has already received the snap and is turning to hand off the ball again to Ridley, who would gain 5 yards and pick up the first down.
The Patriots would run the ball in such a fashion on five of six first-down plays, and two of four second-down plays.
During this time, Denver struggled lining up, matching up, and subbing in personnel to match the Patriots. Tom Brady would take advantage of this on each of their five passing plays, all of which gained first downs.
On a 3rd-and-8 play on the Denver 17-yard line, Brady completed a 9-yard gain to Brandon Lloyd. As they had done all drive, New England then quickly lined up for the next play.
Then, as he had done on the past five first down plays, Brady turned to hand the ball off. Slot cornerback Chris Harris, matched up on Wes Welker on this play, was momentarily frozen by Brady's play-action fake.
Welker ran a sharp out-pattern and found himself wide open. Brady threw him the ball and he ran in for the easy touchdown. The fake was further sold when guard Logan Mankins pulls to the right side of the line, a move that is a strong indication of a running play.
It was a fairly conventional play action pass, but would not have been nearly as effective had the Patriots not been so successful running the ball to that point. The pace that New England operated at kept Denver's defenders on their heels and afforded less time for them to settle in on their assignments.
After two consecutive weeks rushing for over 200 yards, the Patriots are now third in the NFL in yards on the ground. They now have more rushing attempts (191) than passing attempts (185).
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