FOXBORO -- On the face of it, what the Patriots are doing offensively seems remarkable.
In their two playoff games, they've spent over 40 percent of their snaps with two running backs on the field, with fullback James Develin taking on a prominent role. On 17 percent of their snaps, they've used two backs and two tight ends.
Remarkable why? Because it's 2019. This season was the season in which offense -- particularly high-flying, pass-happy offense -- supposedly "broke the NFL for good."
But consider what the Patriots are doing.
Among playoff teams this year, the next-closest team in terms of utilizing multi-back sets was the Saints. But, on a percentage basis, New Orleans deployed two-back sets less than half as frequently (16 percent) as New England.
No one has sniffed Josh McDaniels when it comes to his "22" (two backs, two tight ends) usage. The Saints ran five such sets in two games. The Patriots ran 29.
Why might that strategy be less remarkable than we've given it credit for? Why should it be less remarkable than we've given it credit for?
Because we should've seen it coming.
🏈ROAD TO SUPER BOWL LIII
"They go into KC and they win that football game by doing exactly what they wanted to do from training camp on," Rob Ninkovich said on this week's Ex-Pats Podcast. "Load up on running backs. Run the football. Set up the play-action. Soften up the defense.
"Because, look, all these [teams] now, what are they? They're all [run by] these offensive gurus that are from college who say, 'Look, we're gonna spread out. We're gonna be so fast.'
"Then Bill's like, 'Eh, we're gonna run it down your throats because you have 240-pound d-ends, 225-pound inside linebackers, extra safeties on the field, and we're just gonna demolish you. We're gonna run right over you, and it's going to be old school because I'm old school and I'm old . . . relative to all other coaches."
It's not simply that the Patriots have tried to take advantage of smaller defenses, it's that they've excelled when they've beefed up, forcing opponents to alter their personnel groupings unless they want to continue to get trampled.
Out of their 21-personnel groupings, the Patriots have averaged 6.2 yards per carry in the postseason and rushed for five touchdowns on 28 attempts. When teams load up against the run and the Patriots have passed out of those "21" sets, often using play-action, they've averaged 10.2 yards per attempt and Tom Brady has had a rating of 108.5.
🏈ROAD TO SUPER BOWL LIII
Players in the Patriots locker room spoke on Wednesday about being able to impose their will on defenses lately and how that impacts the psyche of an offensive huddle.
"It's very enjoyable, man," Shaq Mason said. "Imposing our will, that's a big thing because no defense wants to get the ball ran on them. If you can impose your will running the ball . . . you can see other things open up for the offense. The run game and the pass game feed off each other, then it's a complete game after that."
"It's huge," Rex Burkhead said. "It gives us a lot of confidence. It opens up things in the passing game as well. [The offensive line] does a great job. We have a great challenge in two weeks with the Rams. That's an unbelievable front, linebackers, secondary. We're gonna have to have a great week of practice and play with that same physicality."
Talented as the Rams are -- and they are, with former No. 2 overall pick Ndamukong Suh and the NFL's best defensive player Aaron Donald -- they're . . . light.
Donald (280 pounds) is such a force that his weight isn't much of an issue. But on the edges of the Rams defense and at the second level, they're built for speed. Outside linebackers Dante Fowler (255) Samson Ebukam (245) will be outweighed by about 100 pounds or more when aligned across from Patriots tackles. Inside linebackers Cory Littleton (228) and former Bucs safety Mark Barron (230) are more suited to play a run-and-chase game than they are to meet power with power.
Will the Rams alter their personnel to match what the Patriots do? Or will they hope that their athleticism is enough to overcome the brute strength that has helped propel New England to the Super Bowl?
The choice, it seems, is theirs. Because the Patriots have established an identity that they don't seem willing to abandon in the next week-and-a-half.
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