Can New England run the ball?

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Dec 05, 2007



Relativity is an awesome phenomenon to behold, because it often gives us a false sense of the comparative size of two unlike objects.
 
For example, someone who didn't understand the concept of relativity, like a small child or Tony Kornheiser, might hold up a beach ball on a bright summer day and conclude that it's bigger than the sun.
 
That's pretty much what we're witnessing here with the satellite storyline circling around Planet Pigskin that New England can't run the football.
 
Compared with the bright bouncy beach ball that is the historic productivity of New England's passing game, its distant yet decent running game looks tiny and infinitesimal by comparison.
 
But it's a false notion. The Patriots run the ball fairly well, and fairly frequently. In fact, the 2007 Patriots might have a better ground game than any of their Super Bowl champion teams of the past six seasons.
 
The belief that New England can't run the football picked up steam Monday night, when the Patriots were held to 90 yards rushing on 24 attempts, an average of 3.75 YPA.
 
Certainly, it's nothing to write home about. But compared with the way Baltimore had been playing run defense all season, it was a pretty solid effort.
 
The Ravens held their first 11 opponents to an average of 77.9 yards per game (857 yards in 11 games). With 90 yards rushing, New England exceeded that average by 15.5 percent.
 
The Ravens held their first 11 opponents to an awesome average of 2.76 yards per attempt (857 yards on 311 attempts). The Baltimore run defense is, in fact, on pace to become the third best run defense of he Super Bowl Era (behind the 2000 Ravens and 1998 Chargers). With 3.75 YPA (24 for 90), New England exceeded that average by 35.9 percent.
 
The truth is that the Patriots run the ball more effectively – and more often – than most people give it credit for. It just doesn't seem that way when their ground game is compared to the historic immensity of their passing game.
 
 Here's how New England stacks up on the ground this year (with info obtained from NFL.com):
  • Rushing attempts – 356 (8th)
  • Rushing yards – 1,456 (8th)
  • Rushing YPA – 4.09 (12th)
  • Rushing TDs – 13 (t3rd)
  • Rushing first downs – 103 (2nd)
  • Percent of rushes for first downs – 28.9 (1st)
  • Fumbles – 2 (t3rd)
If you read those numbers to any any reasonable analyst, without naming the team in question, they would come to one conclusion and one conclusion only: the team in question fields a better-than-average ground game.
 
Certainly, it's an output that most teams would be proud to have. And certainly, it compares quite well – in some cases even favorably – with the ground attacks of the only teams that matter this year: Indy, Pittsburgh, Dallas and Green Bay.
 
These four teams, along with New England, not only constitute the five best teams in football, they also boast five of the six highest scoring offenses in football (with 7-5 Cleveland the lone interloper).
 
Here's how the ground games of the only five teams that matter stack up against each other:
 
NFL's BIG FIVE on the GROUND
Team
Attempts
YPA
First Downs
% Firsts*
TDs
Fumbles
% Run
Pittsburgh
405
4.10
77
19.0
7
6
52.87
Indy
358
3.97
98
27.4
15
1
45.60
Dallas
335
4.36
70
20.9
11
3
45.70
New England
356
4.09
103
28.9
13
2
43.95
Green Bay
270
3.79
46
17.0
9
3
35.81
* Percentage of run plays that result in a first down
 
Among the five best offenses in football, the Patriots rank:
  • No. 3 in rush attempts
  • No. 3 in yards per rush attempt
  • No. 1 in rushing first downs
  • No. 1 in the percentage of runs for a first down
  • No. 2 in rushing TDs
  • No. 2 in fewest fumbles
  • No. 4 in percentage of run plays
In other words, if New England can't run the football, than none of the best teams in the NFL can run the football. New England's average per rush attempt, for example, is just 1/100th of a yard (one-third of an inch) less than Pittsburgh's. The Patriots, compared with the Steelers, have rushed for 26 more first downs, almost twice as many TDs and have one-third the number of fumbles. Yet nobody seems worried about Pittsburgh's ability to run the football, when the truth is that the Steelers simply run the ball more often than the Patriots, but certainly no better by an objective measure.
 
Sure, some folks will argue that New England's ground game is really not that effective, and that it benefits from defenses geared up to stop its prolific passing game. To which we reply: Who cares? These are the same folks who look at our Quality Stats and don't want us to include special teams touchdowns because it's unfair to their defense, as if the scoreboard is in the business of assigning blame. 
 
None of which is to say that the Patriots have an elite ground game. But they certainly have a capable ground game. And it's certainly a ground game capable of carrying the team to the Super Bowl. For example, here's how the New England ground attack stacks up to those of its Super Bowl champion teams in 2001, 2003 and 2004.
 
GROUND ATTACK of NEW ENGLAND'S SUPER BOWL CHAMPS
Team
Att. (PG)
Yards
YPA
First Downs
% Firsts*
TDs
Fumbles
2001 Patriots
473 (29.6)
1,793
3.79
101
21.4
15
12
2003 Patriots
473 (29.6)
1,607
3.40
91
19.2
7
7
2004 Patriots
524 (32.8)
2,134
4.07
120
22.9
15
7
2007 Patriots
356 (29.7)
1,456
4.09
103
28.9
13
2
* Percentage of run plays that result a first down
 
The 2007 Patriots, in other words, are on pace to become the best rushing team of any of the franchise's Super Bowl champion clubs. They won't run the ball as often or as far as the 2004 Patriots, a team whose ground game was led by Corey Dillon, but the average per attempt of the 2004 and 2007 Patriots is a statistical dead heat, with a slight advantage to this year's team. The 2007 Patriots will also surpass that 2004 club in touchdowns, rushing first downs and percentage of runs that resulted in first downs.
 
Compared with their past Super Bowl champions, the ground attack of the 2007 Patriots suddenly looks fairly large by comparison.
 
 

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