NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
On May 10, 2012, undrafted Ole Miss running back Brandon Bolden signed his first NFL contract. Inking a three-year, $1.45 million deal with the New England Patriots sent Bolden down the same road as another 5’11”, 220-pound undrafted Runnin’ Rebel with dreadlocks named BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
The comparisons to New England’s former 1,000-yard rusher were there from the onset. But it would take more than comparisons for Bolden to stick around Foxborough, Mass.
It would take ability.
He showed it, cracking the team’s 53-man roster out of training camp. His rookie campaign consisted of 10 games, 274 rushing yards, two touchdowns, two catches for 11 yards and special-teams duties. That said, it also consisted of a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Bolden’s offensive momentum was interrupted by the suspension and his year ended quietly. By the time the summer of 2013 rolled around, the 23-year-old’s roster spot was anything but guaranteed. Yet even with fellow backs Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, LeGarrette Blount and Leon Washington all in the mix, No. 38 was still able to keep his locker inside Gillette Stadium.
Through the first two contests of this season, Bolden was inactive with a knee injury and saw Ridley, Vereen, Blount and Washington all get their chance at reps.
In wasn’t until Week 3 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that Bolden got a chance at his.
He made the most of them, amassing 100 yards on just eight touches and 85 yards on just four. The second-year pro’s season debut on Sept. 22 helped mark more than a Patriots victory, though.
It helped mark his reemergence.
12-Yard Halfback Screen
Bolden’s impact was felt from the first snap. On 1st-and-10 following a touchback, the Patriots came out in “10” personnel with Bolden flanking quarterback Tom Brady in shotgun, three wide receivers trips-right and second-round target Aaron Dobson split left. The Buccaneers countered with four down linemen and safety Mark Barron cheating up to the line of scrimmage.
That reaction by Tampa Bay set up New England’s designed halfback screen, as right guard Dan Connolly, center Ryan Wendell and left guard Logan Mankins all readied to pull left and shield Bolden after his efforts in pass protection.
As Brady handled the snap, Barron dropped back into coverage the Patriots trio of wideouts ran down the right side of the field only to be looked off. This detracted attention from Bolden, who was initially in to block. And with three of four D-linemen engaged in blocks on offensive tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer, the subtlety bought New England’s interior linemen time to depart from the perimeter of the pocket.
As the pass rush zeroed in, Brady stood in the pocket long enough to alleviate Bolden. Right as the Bucs swarmed, he checked it down to the lone tailback. Bolden caught the ball in stride and maneuvered behind Mankins and Wendell, who had Barron toggled. Simultaneously, Wendell toggled defensive tackle Gary Gibson.
The assignments were executed, and Bolden was left with a runway inside.
He burst through it.
With the aid of a shattering block by Wendell – that forced Gibson to leave the tilt – Bolden bowled through the defense for a 12-yard gain.
Safety Ahmad Black eventually brought down Bolden by the shoelaces, but not before the Patriots halfback had extended across the first-down marker.
10-Yard Quick Screen
Bolden’s next two shots at the football netted a three-yard carry and an incomplete pass. His fourth try of the game was more consequential – even if it drew boos from the stands.
On a 3rd-and-18 with just under a minute left in the first quarter, the Patriots combated the poor field position with a relatively conservative play call. Bolden motioned out of the backfield and joined the four wide receivers at the line, while the Buccaneers played off in a 4-1 dime alignment to prevent the first.
Bolden – abutting the numbers – geared up for a quick screen behind Dobson, Solder, Mankins and Wendell.
As Brady took the snap from center, he immediately rifled the ball in the direction of Bolden. Dobson went after rookie cornerback Johnthan Banks, just as the left side of the line departed upfield.
However, because the ball was delivered so rapidly, the blocks did not have time to deter the Tampa Bay tacklers. Right defensive end Adrian Clayborn curled out from Solder before it the ball was halfway to Bolden.
Bolden caught the ball squarely and pivoted. He escaped ahead for 10 yards, although he encountered a roadblock at the 15-yard line, where Mankins and Solder were fending off Barron. And with little real estate outside, Bolden had to slow up, despite having Clayborn in his rearview.
Clayborn took Bolden down from behind. It was a 10-yard acquisition when the Patriots needed 18.
With the ball inside New England’s own 20-yard line, the punt team was called upon. It was the Patriots’ third punt in 15 minutes of action.
While the second frame included Bolden on a two-yard direct snap and three-yard reception, the third frame was a far more memorable one for the Baton Rouge, La., native.
It featured a career milestone.
On a 2nd-and-10 with 12:52 left in the quarter, the Patriots implemented “20” personnel with three receivers and fullback James Develin out in front of Bolden. On the other side of the ball, the Buccaneers implemented a 4-2 nickel with for down linemen and two linebackers.
For Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, the plan was to merge the offensive line right and run a strong-side cutback for Bolden. If the defense followed suit, Bolden could potentially redirect and surpass the seven men in the box.
Brady harnessed the snap and turned to Bolden for the handoff. With Develin charging out in front, the offensive line thrusting the defensive line along with them, and slot receiver Julian Edelman charging into the defensive backfield towards cornerback Leonard Johnson, Bolden waited patiently.
He had two choices.
Firstly, he could continue to stretch diagonally outside towards Dobson’s block on Banks. Or secondly, he could swing back perpendicularly if he saw a lane open up in the trenches.
In the meantime, he stayed balanced and diagnosed the progression of his teammates’ blocks.
When Bolden saw linebacker Lavonte David unsuccessfully dive at his legs, his mind was made up. He was going to plant his right foot and drive back through the pool of Buccaneers.
With six would-be tacklers either blocked by Patriots or on the turf, it was a five-man game for Bolden. He had to eclipse Johnson, linebacker Daniel Te’o-Nesheim and safety Dashon Goldson.
He did. And he was off to the races. Passing midfield, Bolden broke one loose for 46 yards.
Barron tracked him down to save a touchdown. But Bolden had already brought the Patriots offense to the other 25-yard line.
Bolden’s vision and trust in his blocks propelled him to the longest carry of his NFL career.
17-Yard Play-Action Halfback Screen
Bolden didn’t get the ball again until the 13-minute mark in the final quarter of New England’s battle with Tampa Bay. By that time, the Patriots had the game well in hand, up 20-3. On 1st-and-10, the Patriots offense operated from an “11” look. Yet while the personnel appeared far from unorthodox, the play orchestrated certainly was.
It was a double play-action fake, wideout reverse and halfback screen all in one. And with Bolden prepped to sneak out to the flat while David intended to blitz the A-gap from linebacker territory, it was the perfect storm for New England.
Edelman went in motion behind the offensive line as Brady handled the snap. And when Brady faked a handoff to both Bolden and Edelman, it took one linebacker away from coverage and it took Johnson away from the right quadrant of the field.
Edelman wrapped around Brady. Bolden left his decoy-like blocking responsibility for the void. And as soon as David got hands on him, Brady threw it.
Bolden got hands on the ball at the 32-yard line. He kept his legs churning through the reception and used his left foot as a compass.
Wendell and Connolly traced his lead.
Barron eluded them. But he could not stop Bolden from flying past the sticks.
Barron closed off Bolden for the third time in the contest, pushing the ball-carrier out of bounds at the Tampa 49-yard line. But the first down had been clinched.
It was his third and final first down of the game.
Bolden’s performance against Tampa Bay was less about volume than it was about optimizing volume. He averaged 12.5 yards per touch. And as Pro Football Focus notes, he was in the huddle for 26 snaps – 21 pass plays, three run plays and two run-blocking plays.
Now Bolden may never be a starter, but he reestablished himself Sunday. And in the process, he reestablished a change of pace in the Patriots offense.