The Secret to Running on the Patriots

By Warren Sharp

In studying up for the Super Bowl this past week, you may have reviewed the Patriots run defense by week, to see which teams fared the best against them on the ground.  You may have pulled up a webpage similar to this one, from Sharp Football Stats:

SB- Run OFF vs NEYou may have looked at it, and been a bit surprised to see the Raiders sitting atop the list.  After all, the Raiders were blown out by the Patriots and the Raiders ranked only 15th in rushing efficiency this year.  The Patriots played multiple top-10 rushing offenses on the season.  Most recently, they played the 8th ranked Titans run offense.  And they completely shut the Titans down.  So how could the Raiders do such damage?  How could they put up not just 5.2 YPC, but a 76% success rate on their runs?

Here is how:  the Patriots defense is particularly susceptible to runs out of 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs).

This year they are allowing a 61% success rate and 6.0 YPC to offenses when they are running the ball out of 11 personnel.  These rankings are well worse than the NFL average of 47% success and 4.6 YPC out of 11.

And when these teams run out of shotgun from 11, they average 6.7 YPC and post a 59% success rate against New England.  The numbers don’t get much better for the Patriots even when stripping out potential garbage time.  When stripping out all runs where the offense was behind by over 10 points, the Patriots still allowed 6.6 YPC and a 56% success rate to 11 personnel in shotgun.

But it’s not just isolated to shotgun, as this year the Patriots still allowed a 64% success rate and 4.9 YPC to RBs-run from 11 personnel when under center.

So what does this mean for the Super Bowl?

The Eagles are one of the most run heavy teams from 11 personnel, recording nearly 60% of their total rushes on the year from 11 personnel.  The only teams  with a higher rate of runs in 11 personnel were the Raiders and Rams.  Apart from a bad Raiders team, the Patriots haven’t faced teams like this often.  For example, the Patriots last few opponents, in percentage of runs from 11 personnel, ranked:

  • JAC: 30%, #5 fewest
  • TEN: 20%, #1 fewest
  • NYJ: 51%, #19 fewest
  • BUF: 39%, #11 fewest
  • PIT: 49%, #15 fewest

And there are those Tennessee Titans.  The #8 ranked run offense, who couldn’t run the ball at all against New England in the Divisional round – those Titans run the least often from 11 personnel of any team in the league.

Jumping back to that bad Raiders team that recorded a 76% success rate against the Patriots defense, the highest the Patriots have allowed all season.  These runs were not isolated to the second half in garbage time.  Even in the first half, the Raiders gained 5.8 YPC and recorded an absolutely absurd 87% success rate on run plays.  A whopping 47% of first half runs actually resulted in first downs.  Marshawn Lynch averaged 6.1 YPC and recorded an 82% success rate over the course of the game.  And Jalen Richard recorded a 100% success rate while averaging 4.8 YPC.

I went back and re-watched the week 11 game against Oakland.  Oakland lined up in 11 personnel on 20 of their 21 rushes.  The one other rush came in 12 personnel.  It gained zero yards.

When the Raiders ran the ball in 11 personnel from shotgun, they gained 8.1 YPC and produced a 75% success rate.  Even when they ran from under center in 11 personnel, they produced an exceedingly strong 83% success rate, but gained a far more reasonable 3.7 YPC.

Breaking out Marshawn Lynch, as he’s more like the Jay Ajayi role:

  • 11 personnel, under center: 8 rushes, 88% success rate, 4.0 YPC
  • 11 personnel, in shotgun: 3 rushes, 67% success rate, 11.7 YPC

This is HUGE.  This is a massive advantage for the Eagles.  And absolutely no one is discussing it.  This could be a very key element of this game, so long as the Eagles do what they’ve been doing.  Because what they’ve been doing is the 3rd most runs out of 11 personnel this season.

Let’s examine other Patriots opponents to see how they fared when running the ball in 11 personnel (I’m removing QB runs from the mix, as NE played KC, CAR and BUF, all of which could scramble in this grouping).  I’ll list teams that had more than 1 run from 11, through the games charted to date (the first 3/4 of the season):

Pats run D vs personnel grouping2

The Raiders were discussed earlier for obvious reasons.  The massive takeaway from the table above is the bottom line (literally).

Removing any potential second half garbage time, the Patriots are allowing the following numbers in and out of 11 personnel:

  • In 11:   60% success, 6.6 YPC
  • Non-11: 36% success, 3.3 YPC

I went back to study their last game against the Jaguars.  I charted it, since it was not charted previously.  As I mentioned earlier, the Jaguars historically ran from 11 just 30% of the time, the 5th least of any team this year.  So they likely would not have fared well on the surface.  And sure enough, if you scan back to the first chart in the article, you will see that the Jaguars were successful on just 9 out of 30 runs.  A terrible 30%.  After this game, I wrote how the Jaguars royally cost themselves a shot in the game by absurdly predictable play calling in the 4th quarter.  They found themselves up by 10, with the ball, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, and they stuck their head in the dirt and hoped for the best.  So let’s ignore the 4th quarter and focus just on the first 3 quarters.  In the first 3 quarters, here were the results of 11 personnel runs vs non-11 personnel runs for the Jaguars:

  • In 11:  50% success, 6.5 YPC
  • Non-11:  31% success, 3.0 YPC

The Jaguars used non-11 personnel on 67% of their RB runs.  And they absolutely torched the Patriots when running from 11 personnel.  Here is a look at a selection of their runs from 11 personnel.  These runs gained 6 yards, 12 yards, 6 yards and 14 yards, and all graded as successful:

Now back to the Super Bowl.

The beauty of the rushing matchup for the Eagles is they don’t have to change much.  As we know from above, the Eagles are a heavy-11 team, meaning they use it frequently, especially with Foles.  They run from 11 often as a foundation of their offense.  They need not change anything from that perspective.  All they need to do is to emphasize Ajayi’s carries in 11, preferably from shotgun:

[For this next section, keep in mind that charting is not done through the final few weeks of the season, and Ajayi only started with the Eagles week 9.  Sample size is less than ideal, but we’ll work with what we have.]

Jay Ajayi takes most of his carries (approx. 67%) in 11 personnel.  When he’s in 11 personnel and running the ball, 72% of the time he’s doing so from shotgun.  And that’s when he’s extremely explosive.

In shotgun from 11 personnel, Ajayi is averaging a 54% success rate and a huge 12.2 YPC. 

To keep it simple for you and for the Eagles, as they finalize their game plan:

The Eagles already use a ton of 11 personnel.  They run often from 11 personnel.  Jay Ajayi is most dangerous when running from shotgun and when running from 11 personnel.  The Patriots allow a 60% success rate and 6.6 YPC to teams that run from 11 personnel, but approximately half of that when those same teams run from other personnel groupings.

If the Eagles want a chance to win the Super Bowl, it is in their extreme best interest to run Jay Ajayi MORE than expected in shotgun, from 11 personnel.