Photo Credit: Chitose Suzuki, Boston HeraldChitose Suzuki
Quick, close your eyes and picture the Patriots offense last season.
What do you see?
No doubt you see images of Tom Brady stepping into a throw, maybe Wes Welker hauling in a catch and ducking under a tackle. Maybe you see Rob Gronkowski spiking the ball in the endzone, or, eek, Aaron Hernandez catching a pass and turning up field. Hopefully you remember to picture this gem:
But be honest, did you picture Stevan Ridley? Shane Vereen? Danny Woodhead? And if you did? Were they the first image you pictured? The second?
I thought not.
The point of course, is that so much of our collective attention goes to Brady and the Patriots' passing attack. And deservedly so, considering Brady threw for nearly 5,000 yards for a second straight season and the Pats finished with by far the most yards and most points in the league, while attempting more passes than all but three teams.
But a look at last year's numbers suggests the team was actually far more balanced than it might have seemed. (Again, what percentage of the guys you pictured were "pass guys" vs. "run guys"?) In 2012, the Patriots threw the ball 53.8 percent of the time. That's the 20th highest pass-to-run ratio in the league. Said differently, that means 19 other teams passed the ball a greater percentage of the time than New England.
Which is all to say - New England did a surprising amount of damage on the ground. In fact, Seattle was the only team in the entire league with more rushing attempts. To be sure, part of that can be attributed simple volume. Again, the Pats ran a ton of plays – 1,191 to be exact - the second most all-time, (just eight shy of the Drew Blesdoe-led Pats of 1994) and a staggering 164 more than the league average. When you run that many plays, it should come as no surprise that you rank near the top in pass and rush attempts.
But it wasn’t simply a numbers game; the Patriots were fairly effective running the ball. Last season only 12 teams finished with a higher yards per carry average than New England’s 4.2 and only six teams had more total rushing yards. (And three of those teams featured running quarterbacks which obviously inflates their totals.)
One last number that speaks to New England’s surprisingly effective ground game: 25. As in, 25 rushing touchdowns, the most in the league.
Good luck getting any indication of Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels' plans for the offense until the real season kicks off, but there has been plenty of speculation that the Patriots' will be relying even more on the run in 2013, given the loss of the team's top five receivers from a year ago. So with that in mind, lets take a closer look at the guys toting the rock this preseason.
Expectations for 2013: The running backs
Last year Ridley led the team with 1,263 yards on 290 attempts and an impressive 12 touchdowns and is expected to remain New England’s featured back in 2013.
Ridley is a very solid all-around running back with no glaring holes in his game (though he does need to hang onto the ball a bit better). At 6’0”, 225 pounds, he can be a load to bring down but is more than just a power runner. Though he lacks teammate Shane Vereen’s speed and agility, Ridley has excellent vision between the tackles and his decisiveness when hitting the hole helps him play faster in traffic. He’s also a willing and able blocker – an important trait given Brady’s importance and lack of mobility.
A quick look at the advanced statistics for 2012 point to Ridley being among the top nine running backs in the league when measuring his performance against expected production by an average player and by weighting yards gained differently according to the down and distance in which they were gained. It gets rather technical from there, so we’ll just move on but you can dig into the nitty-gritty on Football Outsiders.com. Point is, Ridley was a well-above average running back in 2012.
Like Ridley, Vereen was drafted by the Pats in 2011, and was actually taken in the second round, 56th overall, 17 spots before his teammate. The former Cal Bear has had his troubles staying on the field but when healthy, has proven effective. Listed at 5’10”, 205 pounds, he is an excellent receiver out of the backfield, with soft hands and impressive route-running ability. Vereen is not particularly elusive, especially for his size, but is a very quick decision maker with good vision and awareness. That’s a welcome trait for the coaching staff after years of watching Laurence Maroney dance around behind the line, unable to decide where to go. Vereen will be a complementary back to Ridley and will likely take over much of the third-down work that Danny Woodhead took on the past few seasons.
Neither Ridley nor Vereen have anything close to Woodhead’s quickness or elusiveness but with Vereen’s pass catching ability and perhaps some carries for either Leon Washington or Julian Edelman, the Pats should be able to effectively fill the void left by Woodhead’s departure to San Diego via free agency.
At 5’11” and 220 pounds, Bolden is another back without great elusiveness but who runs well between the tackles and has surprisingly good pass catching ability.
An undrafted free agent out of Mississippi State in 2012, the rookie had a monster game in Week 4 against the Bills, breaking out for 137 yards on 16 carries and his first career touchdown. He logged another 14 carries the following week but on November 9 was suspended for four games for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drugs policy and never really made his way back into the rotation. He’ll battle newly acquired fourth-year veteran LaGarrette Blount for the goal-line/short yardage role and despite giving up 30 pounds to the former Buc, Bolden is the favorite to win out.
At just 26-years-old and with only three seasons under his belt, the former Oregon bruiser so has looked ten years older than that so far this training camp. He has no burst, is consistently getting knocked around by linebackers and twice during last Monday’s practice in Gillette Stadium tripped over his own feet while trying to catch a pass.
Blount had 1,000 yards rushing his rookie season in 2010 while averaging an impressive five yards per carry for Tampa Bay. In 2011 his average fell to a still-respectable 4.2 yards per carry and he picked up 781 yards total, but last season Blount was given just 41 carries and picked up 137 yards despite appearing in 13 games for the Bucs. He was traded to the Pats for Jeff Demps and a seventh round pick in April and if his performance doesn’t improve dramatically in camp, he projects to be the first running back cut.
Eight-year veteran Leon Washington also joins the Patriots training camp this season after spending the last three years in Seattle. Washington is primarily a kick return specialist – and a good one at that –he earned Pro Bowl honors in 2008 and 2012 and All-Pro honors in 2007, 2008 and 2010. More recently, he finished 2012 ranked second in the league with a 29 yards-per-return average.
Washington is short, just 5’8”, but is listed at 203 pounds and at 30 year’s old, still shows incredible speed and quickness. While Danny Amendola looked terrific fielding punts in camp and Edelman has been a serviceable return-man, injury concerns with each may compel New England to keep Washington around this year. The fact that he is a smart, well-respected and mature voice in the locker room should only help his cause.
The Patriots also have halfback George Winn, an undrafted rookie free agent out of Cincinnati on the roster and a few fullbacks, though the team is highly unlikely to keep a fullback during the regular season.
It's a solid group of running backs but ballcarriers are really only as good as their line allows them to be. And on that front: more good news for the Patriots.
According to FootballOutsiders.com, the Pats boasted the fourth-best run blocking in the league in 2012 and are likely going to bring back nearly all of their starters. (It should be noted that no statistic can be viewed in a vacuum and that New England’s phenomenal passing attack unquestionably made life easier for their running game. That said, this ranking isn’t a fluke. That Pats’ line is a very good group of run blockers.)
There are no exceptional talents in the backfield but it is a good stable of smart, solid players who complement one another effectively behind a very good offensive line. The run game will likely make up a slightly greater percentage of the play calling in 2013, at least for the first few games, while Brady and a completely new set of receivers get in rhythm.
This group of running backs is not likely to break a great deal of long runs, both because of its lack of home run speed and its mediocre elusiveness. But it is a group that will consistently get what's available, and given the strength of the offensive line, that should generally be a respectable four-to-five yards. That's important because second-and-medium gives McDaniels and Brady enormous latitude in their play-calling and forces defenses to have to respect both the run and the pass.
Both of which the Patriots will likely do quite a bit of in 2013. Can you picture it?