PHOENIX -- Mention the New England Patriots to any one walking around town today and the conversation is about Tom Brady and the awesome passing game. There are times Brady makes it look so easy with Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth and Ben Watson. But the playoffs did a lot to demonstrate how well New England can run the ball and how willing they are to run it. The Patriot run game will be a factor in the Super Bowl and it is not an afterthought for Bill Belichick.
The weather for the playoff games against Jacksonville and San Diego wasn't ideal for a big passing game and conditions in Arizona are perfect to throw the ball 40 times, but I don't think the Patriots intend to do that for the sake of doing it. Most people consider the Giants a big running team, but by the end of the regular season New York had only run the ball 18 more times than the Patriots. In the postseason, New England ran the ball 60 times and attempted 61 passes. That's balance! The Pats had 24 first downs running the ball and 23 throwing it. That's balance! Brady's offense generated 147 yards a game on the ground in the playoffs and that's a serious problem for the Giants.
Let's take a look at the running game I expect to see from New England. The Patriots faced a 4-3 defense against the Jaguars and a 3-4 defense against the Chargers with equal success. Because the Giants have a 4-3 defense similar to the Jags, I'm willing to bet the Jaguars game will provide more clues than the Chargers game as to how this Super Bowl will be played out on the ground.
When I broke down the Patriots run game against Jacksonville, there were a number of issues to keep in mind as the Giants prepare for the big game. New England ran the ball from seven different personnel groupings. So, the Giants are going to have to wait for confirmation from the Pats as to which personnel grouping will be the dominant one in this game.
An interesting key for the Giants will be to differentiate the three ways New England uses the three-receiver packages. The first three-receiver personnel grouping includes Moss, Welker, Stallworth and Kyle Brady as the tight end with Laurence Maroney in the backfield. That is a heavy run situation. In fact, the 10 running plays in the Jacksonville game from this package generated 84 yards (8.4 per rush) with three explosive runs over 10 yards each. Kyle Brady at 275 pounds can block an end or a linebacker -- and if he motions into the backfield, Belichick will not be afraid to "wham" block the defensive tackle with him. The Pats whammed the Jacksonville front three times for 16 yards and it could be very effective against Giants defensive tackles Fred Robbins and Barry Cofield. If the Giants made their defensive calls based on Brady being in the game, they would have a run tendency to go on. But the risk of Tom Brady pulling the ball out and throwing a play-action pass will probably keep the Giants in a two-deep shell.
The next three-receiver package has Watson in for Kyle Brady, and that takes on a different meaning. New England is a heavy pass team in this package and the Giants may even have to consider a sub package, going to a dime defense. A fifth defensive back is on the field because of the three wide receivers, but Watson is too much to handle for a linebacker, so a sixth DB may have to come in. The running game with Watson tends to be more about the draw play.
The third way the Pats get to a three-receiver package is with two running backs and no tight end. This package has been used sparingly so far in the postseason but is effective with a fullback leading Maroney off tackle.
Of course in short yardage and goal line situations the Patriots like the two tight end, two running back sets with just one wide receiver. There were five snaps of it in the Jaguar game and the run game was a little right handed but all off tackle.
New England ran the ball 10 times on first down and 11 times on second down in the Jacksonville game. The second-down runs were effective -- logging 70 yards. In the first half, they had little success but they didn't shy away from the run game with the score tied at 14 at halftime. They got after the Jags instead, and the first five run plays of the second half produced 68 yards with Kyle Brady at the point of attack and guard Stephen Neal pulling and leading the way with Maroney right behind him.
I talked with Maroney and Neal today after watching the Jacksonville game tape and -- without giving any of the game plan away -- they said were both excited to use that package again. If Neal is pulling from his right guard spot and Brady is on the left side, it looks like New England will be attacking Osi Umenyiora and the Sam linebacker. Keep in mind that Neal -- the former college wrestler with no college football experience -- did not play in the Week 17 game against the Giants.
- Kyle Brady is in the game and the yellow flag is up.
- In the one-back sets, the running back is in the "dot" position, directly behind the QB.
- The tight end motions into the backfield but does not go out the other side.
- The line splits are a little wider.
Finally, with all the rolled coverages to Moss and the bracket coverages on Welker, the run opportunities are there for the taking and Tom Brady takes what the defense gives him. Keep in mind Kevin Faulk comes in the game with the four wide receiver package or the Watson/3-receiver package and Brady will still take a run when it's called for. Don't think the shotgun for Brady is exclusively a passing situation. The best run of the game against the Jags defense was a shotgun inside handoff to Maroney for 22 yards.
I think New England intends to run the ball 20-25 times in this game and expect to do a lot better than the 1.7 yards per carry the team had the first time it played the Giants.