When the New England Patriots needed pivotal yards in the AFC Championship Game, they leaned on their best, most important players.
As has been the case time and time again, quarterback Tom Brady connected with wide receiver Julian Edelman and tight end Rob Gronkowski, as the Patriots offense didn’t even let the Kansas City Chiefs touch the ball in overtime en route to a Super Bowl-clinching win.
And while it was the air attack that helped convert three (!) third-and-10 situations in the extra frame, New England actually went run-heavy upon reaching the red zone: three Rex Burkhead runs, 15 yards, ballgame.
Two of the three Burkhead runs to end the game came out of the “21” personnel, a grouping that includes two running backs and a tight end. It’s a personnel package the Patriots have used more than all but one team this season.
According to Sharp Football Stats’ personnel grouping frequency numbers, the Patriots have run 348 plays out of 21 formations this season. That’s roughly 28 percent of their entire offensive plays, a usage rate that was second only to the San Francisco 49ers all season.
The Patriots were pretty good running it out of 21 this season, averaging 4.6 yards per carry on those running plays, which is right around the NFL average. After New England’s Week 10 loss to the Tennessee Titans, though, the Patriots took that running attack to another level.
Since Week 11, the Patriots are averaging 5.4 yards per carry on their 116 runs out of 21 personnel, according to Sharp Football Stats. That’s considerably better than the league average of 4.7. It’s likely no coincidence that the increased production has coincided with rookie running back Sony Michel getting healthy, as well as a healthy-ish Rob Gronkowski who has been nothing short of a run-blocking beast in the last two months.
The schedule has helped, too, especially in the AFC Championship. Had we looked at these numbers prior to that game in Kansas City, we would have seen this coming. The Chiefs’ run defense was bad against everyone and everything in 2018, and it had zero answers for teams running the ball out of 21 personnel. Kansas City allowed a staggering 6.2 yards per carry when teams ran at them out of that package.
Then the Patriots came to town. One week after New England gouged the Los Angeles Chargers 100 yards on 15 carries with three rushing touchdowns out of 21, the Patriots ran for 73 yards on 13 carries with a pair of rushing touchdowns against KC.
And they did it all game, starting from the first play of the game with this brilliantly blocked 11-yard run for Sony Michel.
The Chiefs eventually seemed to figure something out, as they slowed the New England running game for much of the second half, but the Patriots — perhaps not wanting to get too predictable — got away from the package in the second half.
But on the biggest play of the game (up until that point) — a fourth-and-1 from the Kansas City 10-yard line — they went back to it with great success. The Chiefs looked like they were gearing up for a Tom Brady quarterback sneak, and he ended up changing the play. Gronkowski walloped Justin Houston, James Develin steamrolled Eric Berry, and Michel walked in for a 10-yard touchdown.
That’s all well and good, but how might this affect the Super Bowl?
The Los Angeles Rams’ defense might not have the same sieve-like qualities possessed by Kansas City, but teams certainly could run on Wade Phillips’ defense this season. In fact, the Rams allowed a league-high 5.1 yards per carry in the regular season, so the Patriots should be able to establish the running game.
And the Patriots should be able to do it out of the 21 grouping. Rams opponents averaged 5.1 yards per carry when running out of 21 personnel this season, including the playoffs. And remember the 49ers, the team that ran the most plays out of 21 this season? Well, they’re divisional rivals of LA, and in the teams’ two meetings this season, the Niners ran for 180 yards on just 25 carries out of that personnel grouping.
This look familiar?
The Rams won both games, but San Francisco turned it over four times in each game, something the Patriots haven’t done since Dec. 16, 2012.
Realistically, this is just one relatively small aspect of the biggest football game of the season. It’s unlikely, especially in this day and age with a quarterback like Brady, that the Patriots win their sixth Super Bowl by running Michel over and over behind fullback James Develin.
But as we’ve seen this season, especially in the playoffs, the Patriots can use this personnel grouping to shift the momentum of a game in a heartbeat, which is sometimes all you need when it matters most.
Thumbnail photo via Mark Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images