Football is an immensely complicated game, but at its core the secret to success on offense is remarkably simple. If you can block all of the defenders in front of you, then the defense will have a hard time stopping you.
That’s obviously a lot easier said than done. But if you’re looking to run the ball with any meaningful success, then any opportunity to get a leg up in the blocking game will be crucial.
Last year the New England Patriots saw what happens when you don’t block well. They famously struggled to convert in crucial short-yardage situations, struggles that were exacerbated by injuries on the line and at fullback.
Yet if Sunday’s game film is any indication, the Patriots have made significant strides and may now have one of the most formidable power rushing offenses in the league. Cam Newton is the obvious difference-maker, but his impact can be felt far beyond just his ability to run.
Leveling the playing field up front
In a typical short-yardage scenario, the offense will often be at a two-man disadvantage when it comes to accounting for incoming defenders. Let’s say you want to hand the ball off to the running back. If you do, the quarterback won’t be able to block and the running back obviously isn’t blocking, either. That means at least two defenders won’t be accounted for and could conceivably make a play.
But what if you don’t need to hand the ball off to a running back? One of the benefits of having a player like Newton is that he’s big and fast enough to get the job done himself, giving you an extra blocker while leaving the defense just one unblocked player to try and bring him down. We saw this most clearly Sunday on the 4th-and-1 conversion near the goal line with New England hanging on to a 14-11 lead with 6:08 to play.
New England lined up with nine blockers on the line, including two eligible linemen (Mike Onwenu and Justin Herron) and both tight ends (Ryan Izzo and Devin Asiasi), plus fullback Jakob Johnson in the backfield. Johnson motioned to Newton’s left, and on the snap Onwenu, Izzo and Johnson each had to seal off their respective men to clear a path for Newton. They all did so easily, leaving only former Patriot linebacker Elandon Roberts to come across the far side to bring down Newton. By the time he got there, it was already too late.
Heavy personnel pays off
Beyond Newton’s presence, that 4th-and-1 play also showed how far the Patriots have come shoring up other blocking positions.
Last year in a similar spot, New England was often forced to field Roberts at fullback and Matthew Slater as a blocking tight end. Meanwhile, the offensive line itself was depleted, with center David Andrews out for the year and left tackle Isaiah Wynn battling injuries.
Now, not only is the line itself in good shape, but the Patriots have a deep well of proper blockers who can be used in jumbo packages. Onwenu played a particularly big role in appearing as an eligible lineman on six plays, which resulted in four first downs, a touchdown, and a 7-yard gain on the game’s first play.
The same ‘super jumbo’ formation used on the 4th-and-1 play was also deployed a second time on the last competitive play of the game. Needing a first down to clinch the win and facing 2nd-and-11, Newton ran up the left side with Johnson, Izzo, Onwenu and a pulling Shaq Mason clearing a path all the way to the line. It allowed Newton to gain the first down, and New England was able to kneel the ball afterwards.
Newton keeps them guessing
Beyond his ability to handle business in the running game, Newton also provides an element of unpredictability that keeps opposing defenses on their toes.
Over the course of the game New England ran 11 read option plays, where the quarterback has the choice to either hand the ball off or keep it and run himself. Newton kept the ball on six of those plays for 24 yards, and he handed it off five times for an additional 29 yards. At one point there was also a traditional, college-style option pitch to James White for a 7-yard gain.
As for the passing game, Newton was able to utilize play action to devastating effect. With the Dolphins frequently playing the run, Newton was able to go 7-for-8 with a sack on nine play action attempts. The one incompletion was his first pass of the afternoon to Julian Edelman, which was right on the money but broken up by a bit hit from Bobby McCain.
The sack came right afterwards when the Patriots misread the Dolphins’ alignment, resulting in Joe Thuney pulling on a designed run to the right while leaving linebacker Jerome Baker a wide open lane to blow up the play.
That’s the sort of miscommunication that no amount of blockers can overcome. But if that’s the worst New England has to clean up after such a strange preseason, then the Patriots are in good shape.