Dion Lewis

Patriots' run struggles helped offense spiral out of control

Patriots' run struggles helped offense spiral out of control

The Patriots found themselves in a vicious cycle on Monday night. Bill Belichick called it "a spiral that you don't want to be in."

What happened against the Dolphins defense was an argument for why the running game in a pass-happy league still matters: The Patriots couldn't run the ball effectively, which impacted their ability to come up with manageable third downs, which destroyed their third-down conversion rate, which limited the number of plays the Patriots had to possess the football, deploy multiple looks, keep Miami off-balance and build momentum. And with the Patriots behind in the second half, they felt they couldn't waste time banging their heads into a wall trying to make the running game work.

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The result was a staggering series of statistics, including 10 total rushes (just two in the second half) for 25 yards and an 0-for-11 showing on third down.

"Well, the biggest problem with the running game is the production," Belichick said on a conference call on Tuesday. "I mean, nobody around here minds calling running plays if we're gaining yardage on them, but when we're not gaining yardage it makes it hard to call...We couldn’t run the ball, couldn’t convert on third down, so don’t have another set of downs to try to get it going again to make enough positive plays in the passing game to avoid third down, or in some cases to get it close enough to have a reasonable chance to convert on third down."

"We haven't had any games this year when we've been that out of balance," Josh McDaniels said. "That's never our intention. We didn't have that intention going into the game. To me, the bottom line is we gotta produce in whatever we're doing, and we didn't do a good enough job in anything that we did on any down. First and 10. Second down. Third down. None of those situations were productive on a consistent basis. When you get into that situation, you find yourself becoming one-dimensional as the game rolls along. It just goes back to execution and being able to produce offensively in whatever you call. You gotta be able to make yards and stay in optimal down-and-distance situations to try to possess the ball much longer than we did yesterday, stay on the field, convert . . . and ultimately strike the right balance as the game goes along."

Rex Burkhead had four rushes of two yards or fewer. His only other run, a touchdown in the second quarter, went for three yards. Dion Lewis fared better in terms of average (five carries, 17 yards), but he had two failed first-down carries - one for two yards and one for a loss of four.

"Some of the negative plays in the running game are like sacks," Belichick explained. "They come up with second-and-14, second-and-13. On several of those plays, we had everybody blocked on paper but didn’t execute the blocks so then we had a negative play. It wasn’t like we had a guy that we didn’t have accounted for. We accounted for him but something happened and we weren’t able to get him, so we ended up with a negative play and now we're in long yardage, so it was a lot of factors that went into it.

"Bottom line was we didn’t have a good night offensively in really any area and we were probably fortunate to have the points that we had with a couple of big plays and gained a lot of yards in a few plays. That was probably the best thing that we did, but our overall consistency in the running game and in the passing game wasn’t at a winning level. That’s obvious."

Lewis, who has been the team's most dynamic runner in recent weeks, didn't see his first carry until the second quarter. Behind good blocks from James Develin and Joe Thuney, he picked up 11 yards and it looked like the Patriots might have something to work off of with their bigger personnel on the field.

That "regular" package, with Lewis and Develin teaming up, went for 21 yards on four carries. Had it not been for that set, their final 2.5 yards-per-carry average would have looked even more flimsy.

McDaniels was asked Tuesday if the score made it so that it wasn't in New England's best interest to continue to trot Develin and Lewis out there to hammer away between the tackles.

"There weren't that many [runs]. Ten runs," McDaniels said. "I don't know if that's a large enough sample size to say we were doing
anything well...We had a couple decent runs in the entire game. The rest of them weren't that good regardless of who was on the field and who wasn't on the field."

Whether with regular personnel (a fullback and a tight end) or sub (three receivers), the Patriots are planning on running it better moving forward. They know they'll have to in order to keep themselves out of situations like the spiral they faced in South Florida.

"We certainly need to run the ball better than what we did in either grouping," McDaniels said. "Not being able to convert on third down limits the total number of snaps you're out there...[Then] OK there's another first- and second-down play that you have coming behind those third-down conversions where you have an opportunity to stick more runs in there or whatever you choose to do.

"You never try to go into a game and be that imbalanced and think you're going to do well against a good team."

Mason coming into his own to power Patriots' O-line

Mason coming into his own to power Patriots' O-line

FOXBORO - On a 44-yard jaunt by Dion Lewis Sunday, guard Shaq Mason chipped down on the defensive tackle before easily advancing to the second level to take out the linebacker, freeing the diminutive Lewis to break into the secondary. 

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Later, on Rex Burkhead’s 30-yard run, Mason exploded out of his stance, pulling right past Cam Fleming, Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen to flatten Tre’Davious White, freeing Burkhead to waltz down the sideline with nary a body to worry about.

On the Patriots’ touchdown scoring drive in the third quarter, Josh McDaniels called the same play twice within a 5-play span. Why? Because of Mason. Against an even front, he pulled with such quickness that he was on top of an unsuspecting linebacker to pave the way for an easy six yards. Once the Pats entered the red zone, they went back to the play. Facing an odd-man front, Mason pulled but recognized leakage from the backside linebacker. Instead of turning up and blocking the first off-colored jersey he saw in the hole, Mason peeled back and walled off that penetration. Lewis scooted through the opening and nearly scored, picking up 15 of the 16 yards to the goal line.

“I love when they give me the opportunity to get out in front of the play,” said Mason.

That opportunity has come frequently for Mason, who’s entered the conversation as one of the best guards in the league. He joins a long and impressive line at that position in Patriots history, from the greatest of all-time, John Hannah, to borderline Hall of Famer Logan Mankins and Mankins' teammate from that era, Steven Neal. 

“I don't think we've had many guards as athletic as Shaq,” said Bill Belichick. “He's pretty athletic. He's got a real good lower body. He's got a lot of leg strength and can move people and he can run very well, as you mentioned, on screens and pulling plays and so forth. He's really an athletic player that's strong, and explosive, and can make blocks in-line, and can also get out into space and run and make blocks in space. That's a pretty tough combination.”

Projecting Mason as a professional was complicated. He plied his trade at Georgia Tech, where passing plays are called only out of desperation. The Ramblin’ Wreck run on first down, second down, third down and fourth if they had to. In addition, their playbook is minuscule. Seventy plays recalled Mason, maybe less. He had to learn how to handle the sheer volume of the Josh McDaniels offense, but more difficult, this newfangled skill known as “pass blocking.” 

“We didn’t do that often,” said Mason, a man of few words.

But Mason worked at it, compensating for his shorter arms by relying heavily on quick feet. He was merely average at fending off pass rusher as a rookie but made that second-year leap last season, earning some Pro Bowl consideration. Now in year three, Mason should be a lock. He’s allowed one sack by my count. That hasn’t gone unnoticed. 

“in some cases, his athleticism shows itself the most when he has to redirect and handle himself in pass protection in an individual one-on-one match-up,” said McDaniels. “We don't often think of that as the time that's going to show up the most, but sometimes when the line slides the other direction and you're one-on-one there, and a good rusher has a lot of space to get to the quarterback and disrupt the passing game, you have to be able to move your feet and redirect. The rushers, obviously, have more than one move and they counter and then Shaq would counter.”

Mason acknowledges there were some steps to take when he left Georgia Tech but with that quiet confidence, he wanted to make sure everyone knows it wasn’t something he felt he couldn’t handle.

“It wasn’t as big a jump as some may think but it definitely was an adjustment coming from the college I came from to here,” he said. “But I was certain I could do it.”

The rest of the league is now certain too.
 

Running with purpose: Why the Patriots offense has reason to be encouraged

Running with purpose: Why the Patriots offense has reason to be encouraged

When Buffalo's defense held the Chiefs to 2.9 yards per rush attempt in Week 12 it meant one of two things: 1) The Bills had solved the running-game issues they exhibited when they allowed over 600 yards rushing combined in their previous three games, or 2) it was kind of flukey. 

What happened on Sunday in Orchard Park was an indication that it seemed to be more of the latter. 

The Patriots ran for 191 yards on 35 carries for a 5.5 yards-per-carry average in their 23-3 win over the Bills. It was the second consecutive week the Patriots cracked the 190-yard mark and the 5.0 yards-per-carry threshold. 

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For the third straight week, it was primarily the Dion Lewis Show, Featuring Rex Burkhead. With both multi-purpose backs running so well -- and with James White and Brandon Bolden also healthy and game-day regulars -- Mike Gillislee was a healthy scratch for the fourth week in a row. 

Lewis ran 15 times for 92 yards, including a career-long 44-yard run that featured a hellacious stiff arm and multiple broken tackles. He averaged 4.4 yards after contact per attempt in the game, according to Pro Football Focus. 

Burkhead, meanwhile, carried 12 times for 78 yards and continues to be the team's choice on the goal line, running in both of New England's scores in the third quarter. He averaged 2.0 yards after contact per attempt and forced four missed tackless on his carries, per PFF. 

Perhaps the only issue surrounding the Patriots running game -- which was given a spark in Week 6 by Lewis and picked up continued momentum with a dominant four-minute drive to close out a win in Week 7 -- is that the Patriots didn't turn its way sooner. 

Lewis came into the game averaging 5.4 yards per carry on first down since the Week 9 bye. That helped keep the Patriots out of third-and-long spots and "on schedule." Yet on first down from the Bills 31-yard line on New England's first drive, Tom Brady dropped back to pass and was sacked. They threw again on third-and-11 two plays later and eventually had to kick a field goal. 

Credit the Bills defense for snuffing out first-down runs at the ends of two different first-half drives that led to field goals, but the Patriots emerged from halftime having run for 125 yards on 16 carries and hearts set on running the football more in the second half. 

Using their athleticism up front -- pulling guard Shaq Mason, leading runs with tight ends Dwayne Allen and Rob Gronkowski -- the Patriots offense continued to churn. The running game set up play-action throws to Gronkowski, and when they got close, they weren't afraid to keep it on the ground. 

Brady finished the day without a touchdown pass for the first time since the season-opener. He got into a very public disagreement with his offensive coordinator and good friend Josh McDaniels. It wasn't necessarily his day. 

But with a running game performing the way it is, the Patriots didn't need Brady's best. That's why this offense may be as imposing now as it's been all year. 

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