This is the third piece in a series looking at plays Patriots could rely on in key situations in 2018. On Wednesday, we looked at their high-low crossers. Friday, we focused on the "smash" passing concept. Today, we turn our attention to an old-school favorite: the two-back stretch.
The play was viewed immediately as a sort of knock on the opposition, according to CBS color commentator Tony Romo.
It was late in last season's AFC Championship and the Patriots could ice the game with a first down against the Jaguars. That first down seemed unlikely, though, facing a third-and-9 at their own 43, with a little more than 90 seconds remaining.
The Patriots came out in their 21 personnel, with Dion Lewis and James Develin in the backfield and tight end Dwayne Allen off the line of scrimmage. Rob Gronkowski was out because of a concussion he suffered earlier in the game.
To Romo, the Patriots were playing to punt.
"I mean, this is a safe call it looks like right here," Romo said. "That's telling you they don't think [Blake] Bortles can go down and win the game with no timeouts. That's what that's telling you."
Sure, part of the benefit of running the football is to burn as much clock as possible and pin the opponent deep. But the play-call also could've said that the Patriots had some confidence that if they executed correctly, their two-back stretch play could be the play that sends them to the Super Bowl.
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP, 1:38 FOURTH QUARTER, THIRD-AND-NINE
DION LEWIS 18-YARD RUN
THE STAPLE: Complicated as the Patriots passing game may be, part of what makes their offense so dynamic is that they can play old-school smashmouth whenever they want to. Develin has seen more snaps the past two seasons than any fullback not named Kyle Juszczyk and he often gets the call in a game's biggest moments. In this situation, Josh McDaniels went to his two-back stretch. The Patriots have athletic and well-conditioned offensive linemen and tight ends to be able to get out on the move on a play like this one after having already run 60 offensive plays. The idea is to use that athleticism and that conditioning to their advantage while attacking the edges of the opposing defense. If there's a cutback lane for the running back to hit because the backside linemen sealed their men, then that may provide the optimal running lane. But that's not always necessary. If the play-side tackle can wall off his man, and if the tight end and fullback can get to the second level with a head of steam, that means the ball-carrier will have all kinds of daylight to the outside. Finally, if the receiver to that side can hold his block, then by the time the defense catches up to the back, a nice chunk of yardage should already be eaten up. That's exactly how it played out.
THE PLAY: On Lewis' 18-yard, game-sealing run against the Jags, Develin was part of a trio of blockers who helped make the play happen. Sending Allen in motion to the left side of the formation, Tom Brady snapped the ball when Allen got outside of left tackle Nate Solder. Then, with an opportunity to end the game, that trio went to work. Solder got to the outside shoulder of defensive end Calais Campbell, neutralizing him with the help of a chip from Allen as Allen worked to the second level. Allen then took on the first linebacker in his path to the inside of the Jags defense. That happened to be Telvin Smith, who was so thoroughly blocked that he got in the way of fellow 'backer Paul Pozluzny. It was a two-for-one for the No. 2 Patriots tight end. Develin led Lewis to the edge and quickly steamrolled safety Tashaun Gipson. Lewis accelerated through the hole between Allen and Develin's blocks and got more than he needed for the first down. All the while, Chris Hogan - arguably the team's best blocking receiver - prevented AJ Bouye from coming downhill and impacting the play.
STAPLE IN 2018: Develin is back for another year after signing a two-year extension this offseason. He'll likely continue to see extensive usage in key situations, oftentimes leading the way for a back to pick up much-needed yardage or to get into the end zone. (The goal-line lead, for example, is another favorite for the Patriots with Develin on the field. Mike Gillislee scored three times on that play, with three tight ends on the field and Develin plowing through the C-gap. That's another no-nonsense staple for McDaniels, who can run fakes off of the goal-line lead. Gronkowski caught what might've been his easiest touchdown of 2017 when the Chargers bit hard on a Brady play-fake and left Gronkowski wide open on a shallow cross.) Allen is scheduled to be back as well, though he could be in competition for the top blocking tight end role with Troy Niklas. Lewis is gone, leaving an interesting choice for the Patriots as to which back they'll choose to take a critical handoff late like the one he did in the AFC title game. Will it be Rex Burkhead? Or what about Sony Michel? The stretch play seems ideal for both since they seem to have similar running styles as see-hole, hit-hole runners. Michel showed he has the explosiveness and vision to run the stretch play without issue in Georgia's offense. The key to being able to run this type of play in 2018 might be what the Patriots have at left tackle. Solder was one of the team's top run-blockers and his athleticism allowed him to make difficult reach blocks or lead blocks in the open field. Isaiah Wynn seems like the kind of tackle who can get out and move when asked. But what if Wynn ends up on the inside? What if it's Trent Brown on the left edge? There are plenty of questions surrounding that all-important position and they'll remain -- both in the pass game and the run game -- until we see more from Dante Scarnecchia's left tackle options this summer.