NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
For the New England Patriots’ offense, Week 3 starts on the ground.
The Oakland Raiders have allowed a 32nd-ranked 400 rushing yards through two regular-season games. The unit has conceded five yards per carry, with four carries of at least 20 yards and two of at least 40 yards along the way.
On the Houston Texans’ opening drive of Week 2 at O.co Coliseum, it was evidenced why.
It was then that halfback Arian Foster tallied 55 yards on five carries, including a nine-yard run through the left A-gap, as well as a 40-yard gash through the right A-gap.
Part of the discrepancy on Sept. 14 could be attributed Foster, a three-time 1,000-yard rusher forging back after an injury-riddled campaign. Part of it could also be attributed to Houston’s zone-blocking scheme, which engaged with Oakland’s linebackers at the second level to create creases, much like it did against New England’s linebackers in 2013.
But much of it came down to the defense’s overall struggles in reading and shedding the blocks across from them. When the likes of defensive linemen Antonio Smith, Pat Sims and Justin Tuck did, it was often because the Texans allowed them to do so.
Gap integrity along the multiple 3-4 and 4-3 front was sacrificed as a byproduct.
Oakland’s nucleus of right outside linebacker Khalil Mack, inside linebackers Miles Burris, Sio Moore and Kaluka Maiava, and left outside linebacker Lamarr Woodley had to make up the difference.
Moore, a 2013 third-round pick, stood apart in his efforts to do so before injuring his ankle. And Mack, the fifth overall pick in May’s draft, looked every part of the edge presence he projected to be coming out of Buffalo. But, even so, the Houston’s run game outmatched the Raiders’ run defense collectively last Sunday.
By the conclusion of the 30-14 Houston victory, the Texans’ stable of running backs had amassed 96 yards on 20 carries through the two A-gaps alone, according to Pro Football Focus. And while the sample size between the B-gaps was a smaller one, its effectiveness was not.
Between the tackles and guards, the Texans racked up 60 yards on 11 carries.
Now, New England’s blocking scheme is cut from a different cloth than Houston’s, but the manner in which the offense approaches the Raiders isn’t expected to be so. And if that rings true, and the run game plays a heavy role in New England’s game plan, Week 3 is likely to be another Stevan Ridley-heavy game.
The Patriots’ primary between-the-tackles back garnered 25 carries against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 2, marking the third most of his four-year career. And, along with the increased workload, he forged ahead for the fifth 100-yard game of his career.
Ridley fell three yards short of tacking on another when he faced the Raiders as a rookie in 2011.
This time, though, the ingredients on New England’s roster could spell another big-personnel showcase, akin to what the offense assembled with last week. Fullback James Develin, tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui and Rob Gronkowski, and eligible blocker Cameron Fleming figure to play integral part if that does come to fruition.
That would mean a mixture of “12,” “21” and “22” groupings with two-wide receiver sets dispersed in some combination of Julian Edelman, Aaron Dobson, Danny Amendola or Kenbrell Thompkins. Brandon LaFell, whose offensive impact has come as a blocker thus far in 2014, could also be involved in single-wide formations during short-yardage situations.
In preparation for the Raiders, the Patriots have emphasized the importance of maintaining a balanced attack, distributing the football beyond Gronkowski and Edelman. Ultimately, it remains to be seen if that will be the method of operation come Sunday’s 1 p.m. kickoff at Gillette Stadium.
On paper, Oakland’s pass defense stands atop the charts, placing second in the league with 164.5 yards allowed through two contests. But that number requires context, as the Raiders’ first two opponents have turned to the ground for a total of 80 carries.
They’ve turned to the air for a total of 48 passes.
Oakland netted three touchdowns and one interception over those attempts. And the assortment has registered two sacks over those sparing opportunities, with one arriving from Moore and another from safety Tyvon Branch.
The Raiders’ lone pick, however, transpired in a 19-14 loss to the New York Jets in Week 1, when a familiar name made his presence felt on a curl route and eclipsed the 57th pass of his NFL career.
Charles Woodson is longer the same player he was during his initial tenure with the Raiders. But the 37-year-old eight-time Pro Bowler is still in the minds of quarterbacks at his newfound home in center field.
He is still in the mind of former Michigan teammate Tom Brady as well.
Woodson’s eyes are quicker than his feet at this juncture in his football journey, yet the converted safety’s anticipation has helped him mitigate the variance. Alongside Branch, slot corners Carlos Rogers and T.J. Carrie, left cornerback Chimdi Chekwa and right corner Tarell Brown, No. 24 has remained a focal point in a secondary that has yet to strike.
To this point, it hasn’t had an abundance of chances to.
If New England instills the run like Houston and New York did in weeks prior, that should continue.