The NFL frequently is described as "a quarterback league," but the winning game plans from this postseason remind us that relying on a strong ground game -- fueled by a workhorse runner or a collection of backs -- remains a critical component of playoff success. The four winning teams from this past weekend had a total of 149 combined rushing attempts -- an average of 37.25 per team -- with the New England Patriots leading the way at 46.
While most were surprised to see Tom Brady taking a secondary role in a pivotal contest, the late-season transformation of the Patriots' offense into a power-running unit has made the team a legitimate threat to win the Super Bowl, despite the losses of several Pro Bowl-caliber players on both sides of the ball. It is a blueprint that Bill Belichick used to guide New England to three Super Bowl titles in the early 2000s, a formula that has opponents shaking in their boots at the prospect of defending a rugged running attack complemented by a deadly play-action passing game.
In Denver, the Broncos' increased reliance on the ground attack is part of John Fox's plan to alleviate the pressure on Peyton Manning. While Manning shattered passing marks with his spectacular play during the regular season, Fox always has believed a championship team must be able to run the ball effectively to control the tempo and dictate the terms to the defense. Fox relentlessly preached this during my time as a scout for his Carolina Panthers, and he continues to do so in Denver, despite fielding an offense with Manning and a bevy of gifted pass catchers.
Yes, the AFC Championship Game features the 15th installment of Brady vs. Manning, but I believe the winning squad will be the one that establishes the run from the outset and sets the tone at the line of scrimmage.
I spent some time digging into the All-22 Coaches Film to study the runners who could make a difference in this game. Here is what we should expect on Sunday:
New England Patriots
The Patriots fielded the NFL's ninth-best rushing offense (129.1 yards per game) during the regular season behind a powerful one-two combination of LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley. The duo combined for 1,545 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns on 331 total attempts. Those combined totals nearly matched the production of the NFL's leading rusher (LeSean McCoy, who had 314 rushes for 1,604 yards), and an even distribution of carries has kept both backs fresh -- a troubling scenario for opposing defenses. With Brady also pushing the tempo at a frenetic pace, the challenge of defending a pair of rugged runners with imposing frames (Blount is listed at 6-foot, 250 pounds; Ridley checks in at 5-11, 220) has proven overwhelming for opponents down the stretch.
From a schematic standpoint, the Patriots feature a power-based running game that uses a variety of "21" (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR), "22" (2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR) and "12" (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) personnel groupings to create jumbo and tight formations at the line of scrimmage. By incorporating these formations, New England forces opponents to play in a phone booth, creating opportunities for a big, physical offensive line to overwhelm defensive fronts at the point of attack. With Blount and Ridley also adept at running through contact in the hole, the combination of big bodies and power football produces big gains in the late stages of the game.
When Belichick acquired Blount in an offseason trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he added a big, physical runner in the mold of Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon, two backs from the team's glory years. The fourth-year pro is a sledgehammer between the tackles, with a combination of speed, strength and power that intimidates defenders in the hole. He specializes at blowing through contact in the second level, leading the Patriots to utilize the Power-O repeatedly to soften the belly of the defense.
Looking at the All-22 tape from New England's divisional-round triumph over the Indianapolis Colts, I noticed both of Blount's big gains were a product of the Power-O from heavy formations. Take a look at the screengrabs below, and you'll see the same blocking scheme executed from different formations/personnel groupings.
In the first screengrab, the Patriots have "12" personnel on the field. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui has motioned down to a wing position to create a trey formation. Left guard Logan Mankins will pull around the right end to kick out the first defender on the edge:
After the snap, Blount takes a counter step to buy time for Mankins' pull block before attacking the B-gap on the right. With the kick-out block securing the corner, Blount makes a nifty cut and explodes through the crease on the way to a 73-yard score.
In the next screengrab, the Patriots break the huddle with "22" personnel on the field in a tight I-wing alignment. Hoomanawanui motions across the formation prior to the snap. Right guard Dan Connolly will pull around the left end to kick out the first defender that shows up. Meanwhile, left tackle Nate Solder will block down to the defensive tackle before climbing to the second level to take on the linebacker:
Upon receiving the handoff, Blount simply takes a counter step before heading to the B-gap looking for a crease. With the play blocked perfectly, Blount explodes through the seam and finishes with a 30-yard gain.
Ridley started the season as the team's primary back, but ball-security issues led to a benching and eventual role adjustment. Alternating series with Blount allows Ridley to stay fresh and avoid the fatigue that led to some of his prior miscues. From a schematic standpoint, the Patriots regularly give the ball to Ridley on inside- or outside-zone plays. These plays, which require the offensive line to work in unison and create a new line of scrimmage on the defensive side of the ball, allow Ridley to make a decisive cut at the point of attack. If Ridley adheres to the one-cut rule (the running back is instructed to make only one cut in the backfield before getting upfield), the Patriots are able to reduce the chances of a negative run. More importantly, the Patriots can exploit a defense that is undisciplined with gap responsibilities.
In the following series of screengrabs, taken from the Patriots' Week 17 win over the Buffalo Bills, Ridley runs an outside zone out of I-slot formation. The Patriots frequently use slot formations to provide a pass threat that effectively loosens eight-man fronts at the point of attack:
The right side of the line (Marcus Cannon and Connolly) will step to the right in unison to create a wall at the point of attack:
Ridley will follow his fullback (James Develin) through the hole to the second level:
With Blount and Ridley pounding between the tackles on a variety of zone and power-based runs, opponents have struggled to contain the Patriots' formidable ground game down the stretch. Blount has eclipsed 165 yards rushing in each of the team's past two games, while Ridley has added a few key runs near the goal line. More importantly, the emergence of a dominant running game has allowed Belichick to employ a ball-control strategy that is critical to playoff success against elite opponents.
Largely overshadowed by the Broncos' aerial circus, Denver's running game has enjoyed solid production, with Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball leading the charge. The Broncos finished 15th in rushing offense (117.1 yards per game) and nearly cracked the top 10 in attempts per game (28.8). Sure, some of this can be attributed to Denver running the clock down with big leads, but a closer look at the tape reveals a workmanlike ground game built around sound zone-based running schemes from shotgun and pistol formations. While the attack has a bit of a finesse feel to it, the rough running styles of Moreno and Ball give it enough bite to work against elite defenses. Factor in the Broncos' creative screen passing game and Fox's backfield gives the defense plenty to think about.
After struggling to initially live up to the hype of his No. 12 overall selection in 2009, Moreno quietly emerged as one of the NFL's top multipurpose running backs this season. He has improved his work ethic and overcome durability concerns to become a hardnosed playmaker capable of doing damage as a runner or receiver in the Broncos' explosive offense. As a runner, he shows excellent patience and vision while finding creases in the middle. He picks and slides through traffic to produce 4- and 5-yard gains in key situations. Although a series of lower-body injuries have robbed Moreno of his explosiveness, he flashes the short-area quickness and burst to move the chains in the Broncos' zone-based scheme.
Looking at his work throughout the regular season, I believe Moreno is at his best when attacking the middle on shotgun runs. He storms the crease with a vengeance and uses his exceptional leg drive to finish runs with authority.
In the following screengrab, taken from the Broncos' Week 16 blowout of the Houston Texans, Moreno is lined up to run an inside power, with right guard Louis Vasquez pulling around the corner:
In watching the video, notice the patience that Moreno exhibits waiting for Vasquez to pull. Moreover, observe how he attacks the crease when the hole opens up at the second level on the way to a 31-yard gain.
With Moreno exhibiting the discipline to let plays develop at the point of attack, the Broncos' shotgun running game has been the perfect complement to the prolific pass attack directed by Manning. In fact, it was Moreno's patience in the shotgun running game that helped the Broncos run roughshod over the Patriots in the teams' Week 12 meeting. Although Denver lost in overtime, Moreno totaled 224 rushing yards on 37 attempts, displaying a crafty running style that overwhelmed New England throughout the game.
Now, I know the screen game technically doesn't contribute to rushing totals, but these plays essentially serve as long handoffs that give Moreno the ball in the open field. Denver features a variety of slow, middle and slip screens to take advantage of Moreno's elusiveness and underrated playmaking ability. The Broncos especially rely on the screen game in second- or third-and-long situations, taking advantage of defenses attacking Manning with pressure and/or employing soft umbrella coverage. In the video clip to the right, watch how the Broncos set up the slow screen by faking a quick pass to the outside before getting the ball to Moreno out of the backfield.
In the following set of screengrabs, taken from the Broncos' Week 6 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Denver is set up to run a middle screen to Moreno on third-and-20. Broncos receivers Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker will run the middle of the field to occupy any defenders in the area:
Moreno catches the ball behind a convoy of blockers:
The end result is a 28-yard gain and an unexpected fresh set of downs.
As a versatile running threat with strong hands, Moreno is the X-factor that makes the Broncos' offense go in critical games. He could play a big role in the AFC title game, with the Patriots expected to focus on stopping Manning and Co. in the passing game.
MONTEE BALLBall was expected to be a major contributor for the Broncos as a potential feature back, but Moreno's production as the No. 1 runner relegated the second-round pick to spot duty. And the Wisconsin product certainly has flashed in that role, with 559 rushing yards on 120 attempts, including a 117-yard game against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 13.
As a downhill runner with sneaky quickness, balance and body control, Ball is an ideal fit in the Broncos' zone scheme. He rarely loses yards and has a knack for getting to the second level in a hurry. While he lacks home-run speed and burst, Ball is explosive enough to flip the field on big gains, as evidenced by the video clip to the right.
With Belichick and the Patriots concentrating on Moreno after his spectacular performance in the initial meeting, it wouldn't surprise me to see Fox unleash his playmaking rookie on New England. The coach always has favored a two-headed monster in the backfield, so the time could be right for Ball to play a key role.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.