This is the eighth straight year the New England Patriots have made it to the Conference Championship game. This is their fourth Super Bowl appearance in five years. This is Tom Brady’s ninth attempt to win one, a game he’s won five times before. When you think about all these past runs what do you see? A dominant defense that mugged receivers into a rule change. The greatest offense of all-time dominated at the line of scrimmage. A spread quick passing offense that revolutionized the slot receiver position. Two great tight ends, what a concept. It’s Brady, Welker, Edelman, Randy Moss, Kevin Faulk, Corey Dillon, Deion Branch, Vince Wilfork, Rodney Harrison, Richard Seymour, Darrelle Revis, Rob Ninkovich. A machine that takes in every player and transforms him into the best possible player he can be.
Yet, there’s a thought that rarely flashes into the brain when thinking about New England’s dynasty. The offensive line has constantly been here, keeping Brady upright except for the few times they didn’t, those times resulting in losses, and controlling the line of scrimmage. For the past few seasons they’ve leaned more on their offensive line than before though. The Patriots’ offense has evolved from a Brady led offense to one that works in unison with a vicious power run offense.
This combination sees Brady quick passing, knowing where he’s going with the ball before the snap, and finding sneaky wicked little receivers sitting wide open in the mesh part of the zone, or after rubbing across the field. It sees a run game that can run every type of run play imaginable, keep the defensive line from moving the line of scrimmage, and absolutely squash the second level. The 2018 New England Patriots are the worst regular season Patriots team since 2007. That didn’t matter this postseason. Because with this third down converting, manufacturing open receivers passing game, and crushing rush attack combined with mediocre defense, the Patriots have done it again. They’re back here all over again.
They’ve used the Anaconda strategy to perfection. They never give the football back, squeezing and suffocating the clock until it’s a row of zeros purple and rigid. Against Los Angeles the Patriots held the ball for 38:20 and ran the ball 34 times for 155 yards. In the Conference Championship game they held the ball for 43:59 and ran it 48 times for 176 yards and scored 4 touchdowns, keeping an all-time great passing offense off the field. They’ve run 138 plays with a lead compared to just 16 without it, a gasp of air above the surface by Kansas City before falling back under to force overtime, and staying under.
All this running the football isn’t a postseason fad. New England ran the ball 478 times during the regular season, the 3rd most this year, and picked up 2,037 yards on the ground, the 5th most. On these plays they picked up 4.3 yards a carry, and were 5th in DVOA. Rarely does a team with this much volume have this level of efficiency.
The Patriots run the ball in every way imaginable. It’s lead, outside zone, inside zone, power variations, pin and pull draws, if the football can be carried by feet alone, the Patriots are doing it and have done it.
The inside zone lead play is a dying play. Teams are all super cool and young and fast. They don’t like fullbacks, and when they have one it’s usually a crappy tight end motioned into the backfield delivering whimpering blocks. They prefer not to run the ball behind the guards during close game situations, and when they do, it’s an idea to set up grander plays. New England loves this play. They can run the ball out of spread formations. Then flip the lever all the way the other direction and go heavy with James Devlin on the field.
Liking Devlin is a cool thing to do now. He traveled from being an undrafted defensive lineman out of Brown, to the Arena Football League, to the United Football League, where he met Jay Gruden. A switch to fullback. A rummage around the practice squad in Cincinnati and New England. Cut. Resigned to start at fullback for New England. Three Super Bowls in three healthy seasons, he never missed a block, don’t look that up.
When Devlin is in the game he’s either traveling to the second level to collect teeth or swinging out wide, wide open, until Brady finally decides to throw it to him when he needs him most. As a run blocker there’s two blocks he makes. A straight ahead iso block to the inside linebacker, and a cross cut pull across the formation.
This is as beautiful as a lead play can get. The playside ‘Ace’ between David Andrews (#60) and Shaq Mason (#69) is exquisite. The way Mason lowers into the block to create movement is perfect. This naturally takes him to the second level where he briefly realigns to catch the linebacker. Devlin is straight ahead. Head on the inside shoulder to shield the defender from the back. Pop and punch. A first round pick wasn’t needed to make this run.
These straight ahead blocks are especially brutal in the redzone. It’s difficult for the offensive line to move entrenched defensive linemen off the line of scrimmage in this part of the field. They’ll submarine and scrape their knees across the ground to maintain lower pad level. Someone needs to create space. This is where Devlin comes in. Coming straight ahead and paving the clutter out on his own.
That other block requires traffic maneuvering. Devlin will line up as an off-set fullback, come across the line of scrimmage, and through the hole to lead the way. These are the types of blocks pulling guards make. This is what he is, he just has a different starting line.
Power. Playside double team to the middle linebacker. But instead of the backside guard kicking out the fill defender, it’s Devlin, skating through a giant’s entrails to dig out Daniel Sorenson.
Devlin isn’t the only secondary blocker who makes his block play after play. Dwayne Allen hasn’t caught a pass in New England and somehow has evolved into a great second blocker. Each wide receiver is scrappy and loves to pop safeties on the third level. And Rob Gronkowski always has his hands inside and overwhelms smaller edge defenders.
The spotlight follows him even after a creaky season with joints and bones that bellow like haunted stairways, and now he’s been lubricated this postseason. He has 7 catches on 12 targets for 104 yards and 5 first downs. Gronkowski then creates advantages in the run game with his crunchy receiving ability.
On 4th and 1 at the end of the fourth quarter, the Patriots took a look at the Chiefs’ ‘A’ and ‘B’ gap covering front and zagged. Gronkowski motioned wide with Eric Berry following him like it’s week one 2017 all over again. This motion gets Devlin on Berry, who he crushes. Gronk drives Justin Houston wide. Marcus Cannon (#61) accidentally blocks two defenders, and gets away with a slight snag while Michel skips in to take the lead.
Against the Chargers the Patriots have seven blockers to eight defenders in the box. Gronkowski blocks the playside linebacker. The safety doesn’t recognize the run. He plays man coverage and gets pulled too far inside. Michel cuts right and gets too wide for him to come back and save the touchdown.
Typically teams who run the outside zone, mainly only run the outside zone. The foot work is exotic, a flurry of feet are required to get the head in the correct spot, and feeling and knowing when to leave home for the next town is a must to cover up every defender to open up the cutback. There’s only so much time that can be focused. A team shouldn’t be able to run this play along with everything else like they do.
New England loves to run outside zone especially to the weakside. They can load up the backside with recievers to pull attention away from the play. The playside ends up being one on one blocks, just enough blockers for the number of defenders. As long as the backside isn’t embarrassed it’s easy yards.
Here the backside does more than go unnoticed. Mason over runs Reggie Ragland to the block, and his forced to turn around to separate him from the play. David Andrews gets his head on the outside shoulder and runs the nose tackle off the line. Joe Thuney (#62) hits Anthony Hitchens in the chin. You can’t block the second level any better. And Trent Brown (#77) clears out the edge defender. This lazy bent over three point stance should not work at all, but it does for Brown. When you are this monstrous you can get away with things like this, and leaving shells in the scrambled eggs.
Second level blocking is the best part of what the Patriots do. This is power. Thuney breaks the safety’s back like a fatality. Mason absolutely devours the second level.
When they actually complete screen passes, the linemen join together and rampage like big trucks through a swamp. Mason and Andrews release instantaneously and with perfect timing. In the open field they are a windshield covered in yellow snot globs of guts, impossible to be seen through, and scrubbed off at big glug fountain drink truck stops.
This play is similar. It’s power once again. This time it’s out of the shotgun with Gronkowski in the slot. He blocks down, Mason pulls around, and the defensive back is crushed. It’s easy to control the ball when eight yards is this easy on first down.
The Patriots’ offense is filled with Easter Eggs. They are perfectly coached. Rarely does anyone make a mistake, or block the wrong defender. Among the perfection are little subtleties. Mason has his hand down and staring right presnap. Joey Bosa is playing two gaps with the linebacker behind him filling from there. Rather than block down and climb to the linebacker, Mason comes down on the defensive tackle, and makes another perfect block at the second level. The linebacker is trapped behind Cannon’s block and met by Devlin.
When blocking mistakes are made by New England it’s usually at the second level. The tackles struggle at climbing that far away from the line of scrimmage on outside zone plays. Cut blocks are missed. Rarely, if ever, are they made at the first level. And even when they do, it they can recover from it.
It’s draw. Brady will fake the quick throw to Cordarelle Patterson after a jet motion. The center blocks down and allows the backside guard to pull around the horn to the fill defender. The playside ‘Duece’ gets to the backisde linebacker and we are running.
Andrews blocks down, but misses. Chris Jones slants inside and swims over the top. Nearly everytime this leads to the center flat on his face with piano keys for teeth. Andrews is able to plant, shuffle inside, and follow along with Jones. The key is his hands. When Jones raises them to swim Andrews sticks him in the chest. Jones is taken just wide enough as a result, and Michel crosses to the right. Also, the ‘Duece’ here is just killer.
It’s Super Bowl week. The days before the BIG GAME and a day that brings nacho cheese fountains, lite beer swilling, and hot dog fingers. Throughout this week tickling you with anticipation, you’ll hear and read the names Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Sean McVay, Gronkowski, Jared Goff, but don’t let those names be the only ones that stick up there. Think about the Patriots’ run game. Because against a below average run defense, and the way New England has played all year, they, not Brady, will probably be the key to this game.