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Breaking Down the New England Patriots' Revitalised Running Game

FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 11:  Stevan Ridley #22 of the New England Patriots runs the ball into the end zone for a touchdown in the first half against the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium on November 11, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
James DudkoFeatured ColumnistNovember 15, 2012

The New England Patriots have revitalized their running game this season. They currently boast the fifth-best ground attack in the NFL. That's a major improvement on 2011's 20th-ranking.

Clever scheming has led the turnaround and allowed second-year runner Stevan Ridley to rush for 814 yards.

The Patriots craft their running lanes with stellar power blocking. Three runs from Week 10's 37-31 triumph over the Buffalo Bills, reveal the three keys to their rushing schemes.

All screen shots are courtesy of CBS Sports

Rob Gronkowski sets the blocking

The flow of the Patriots' ground game is set by the blocking of tight end Rob Gronkowski. His motion and eventual position in the backfield, dictates where they will run.

The screen shot below shows one way he does it.

The Patriots are in their familiar three wide receiver, one tight end, one running back set. The highlighted portion shows Gronkowski aligned behind left tackle Nate Solder.

Gronkowski has motioned himself into the fullback position. With Gronkowski in the backfield, the Patriots now have a numerical match for the Bills' nickel front.

The screen shot below shows important Gronkowski is in creating rushing lanes through the middle.

At the snap, the Patriots' power blocking takes over. The highlighted portions show four blockers winning one-on-one.

Gronkowski is one of those blockers and he takes out nickel linebacker Bryan Scott (43). Because New England win their individual matchups, right guard Donald Thomas can move to the second level and block a linebacker.

The blue box shows Thomas's crucial block. Together with Gronkowski's effort, this creates a clear lane through the middle for Ridley, indicated by the red arrow.

Gronkowski sets the tone for the play and his role is a familiar theme in the Patriots' running schemes.

Combination blocking

One of the best things the Patriots do is run effectively from the shotgun. They do it through skilled combination blocking.

A big fourth quarter gain from Ridley provides the perfect example.

In the screen shot below, Tom Brady is in the shotgun surrounded by his familiar personnel grouping.

The highlighted portion again shows Gronkowski's crucial pre-snap positioning. This time the Patriots will use him to seal the edges, in order to set Ridley free.

The screen shot below demonstrates New England's combination blocking at work.

Gronkowski is highlighted sealing the edge by blocking the strong-side defensive end. Also highlighted is left guard Nick McDonald (65), who pulls out and blocks the strong-side defensive tackle.

Using pulling linemen is the signature of power-blocking schemes, as we'll see in the final play.

These two blocks allow Thomas and right tackle Sebastien Vollmer to move out and attack defenders at the second level.

This is something seen in many zone-blocking schemes. It helps to once again create a chasm of space through the middle for Ridley.

Adherence to a Power system

As the last play showed, the Patriots aren't always only one thing. However, it's fair to say their running schemes do still rely heavily on the principles of power-blocking.

This isn't surprising considering Bill Belichick worked for years with Bill Parcells, Ray Perkins and Ron Erhardt. All three believed strongly in a power-based ground game.

Power schemes are easy to recognise by the use of pulling linemen, acting as hulking lead blockers in space. The following play shows how well the Patriots execute these principles.

In the screen shot below, the Patriots are in their usual alignment.

Gronkowski is highlighted going in motion, about to set the blocking.

Once the ball is snapped, the Patriots begin winning one-on-one and getting a pulling lineman around the edge. The screen shot below shows how.

The red line shows Gronkowski make a nice cutback block, nudging defensive end Mario Williams (94), away from the play.

This allows Solder (77) to pull around the edge from his tackle position and act as Ridley's lead blocker. The blue line indicates Solder's obvious path.

This pitch play with a lineman leading out in front, is a staple of the power-based running game.

Wide receiver Deion Branch is also highlighted, making a key block out in space. The Patriots have expertly used hat on a hat, power-blocking and a pulling blocker, to convert on third down.

Conclusion

Through their clever use of personnel like Gronkowski and well-executed power-blocking, the Patriots have revitalized their running game. It is making a star out of Ridley and giving defenses another problem besides Brady.

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