Depth at running back key to Patriots success

Depth at running back key to Patriots success
November 8, 2013, 10:30 am
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FOXBORO – There aren’t many teams in the NFL with a stable of running backs as deep as the Patriots have.

For fantasy owners, that’s an irritation. For offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and running backs coach Ivan Fears, it’s a boon. Presuming, of course, that each back gets the baseline expectations for the position, the specific role he is fulfilling and the importance of being who the offense sees you as being.

Stevan Ridley is subtly unlike Brandon Bolden who isn’t the same as LeGarrette Blount who has nothing in common with Shane Vereen, other than the fact they have “RB” next to their names on the Patriots roster.

On one hand, the varied skills and demands from each player make coaching the position a little more intricate. On the other, it makes it easier to answer the simple question that earns each player more chances: “Did you do your job and produce?”

“Is he productive or not? Did he get it done or did he not get it done?’” Fears asked rhetorically this week when we talked backs and philosophy. “I mean, that’s what everybody looks at. Everybody evaluates us the same way: did we win or did we not? And not so much how you play the game, [but] whether you did [win]. For those guys, it’s pretty much the same. As long as they’re running the play the way we need them to run the play, once that ball is handed to them, it’s up to them. They know what we expect of them, they know the reads that we expect them to go through, but when it all comes down to it, he’s got to make a guy miss, he’s got to find a way to win, he’s got to make a play. And if he’s making plays, you’re going to hand him the ball more. If he’s not making plays, you’re going to hand him the ball less.”

Terry Allen, Kevin Faulk, Antowain Smith, Corey Dillon, Lawrence Maroney, Sammy Morris, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Ridley have all led the team in single-season rushing during Fears’ tenure with the Patriots. Fears, hired by Pete Carroll in 1999, has been running backs coach for all but Allen and Faulk.

One of the aspects of running back that differs from most every other position on the field is the room – the demand – for creativity on the part of the back.  

As Fears said, a back has “got to make a guy miss, he’s got to find a way to win.”

That, though, comes after the blocks are read and the design of the play is allowed to unfold. Making someone miss on the perimeter to get 2 yards is no good if you didn’t bang forward for 3 yards in a far-less sexy jaunt into the line.

Ridley – despite his occasional lapses – is one of the most visually pleasing runners the Patriots have had because he generally will run the play, stay patient, hit the hole and then get creative.

He has an ability to make people miss while not losing much forward momentum.

Contrast Ridley with two Patriot backs of recent vintage.

Green-Ellis was even better than Ridley at running the play called. He just didn’t have the physical skill to make the first man miss with any regularity. Maroney had very similar physical skill to Ridley but lacked feel. When patience seemed in order, he would ram into the backs of linemen still executing blocks. When decisiveness was necessary, he’d peek and patter his feet.

As for current projects, Blount is making the most progress. In Tampa, Blount could be too creative at the point of attack and more bullish downfield. As a short-yardage back weighing more than 250, he was surprisingly ineffective. Fears, it seems, is making progress getting Blount’s style changed.

“You expect all of them to understand the situation in the game,” Fears stated. “That’s what they’ve got to know. You’ve got to play the game understanding the situations that are being presented to you at that time. There’s a certain amount of time of freedom during certain situations, and there’s less freedom in other situations. In other words, we get down to the goal line, ‘Guys, there’s about an inch or two we need, we need you to plow it in there and get it.’ I mean, we don’t look for you to bounce it out and try to run around the entire defense and lose three yards. There’s a certain amount of freedom that you give a guy, but he’s also got to play within the structure of what we’re trying to get done during that time. That’s what’s expected of him, that’s just being a disciplined back and doing the right thing.”

All that said, Fears – like anyone who loves watching backs – wants that creativity.

“When it really comes down to it, I’m serious, a guy has got to make plays for you,” Fears stressed. “He’s got to make plays. You’ve got to allow him some creativity in the area, how he’s going to beat that particular guy that he’s stuck with. The safety, whether he’s going to juke him or try to bounce, or whether he’s going to lower his shoulder and try to run through, is he going to give him the spin move . . . you know what I mean?”

With a stable of backs, the chance to get a rhythm and perfect moves – a spin, a jump cut, a dead leg, a stutter-step – is reduced. The Patriots have addressed that, Fears said, by allocating practice time to the creative process.

“You try to put (the back) in those situations so you can practice them in practice as much as possible, and that’s what we do,” Fears concluded. We’ve done a lot more of that this year than we have done in a long time.”