Some observations on some hot topics from the New England Patriots' 34-20 win over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.
Running game hits stride behind dominant offensive line
LeGarrette Blount should consider buying his offensive line a nice steak dinner. Take nothing away from Blount, who set a career-high for rushing yards in a game with 189, but the men up front were the key behind that achievement.
The offensive line gashed the Bills' defensive front by paving big holes at the line of scrimmage, and if that trend continues into the playoffs, the running game could be the Patriots' not-so-secret weapon in the most important games of the season.
Blount made his share of nice cuts, and churned out his share of yards after contact, but the holes were there all day long. His 36-yard touchdown run at 12:22 in the second quarter was a clinic by Nate Solder (77), Logan Mankins (70) and Ryan Wendell (62).
Solder and Wendell did a fine job of holding their blocks at the point, walling off the defenders to allow Blount to get moving; Mankins quickly got out to the second level of the defense and got a block to spring Blount free.
Of course, his cut back across the formation was as nice a move as you'll ever see from a 6-foot, 250-pound running back.
Those holes were available, regardless of the running back on the field. Stevan Ridley had a 29-yard run, his longest of the season, thanks to a pair of great blocks by Dan Connolly (63) and Marcus Cannon (61). With fullback James Develin clearing the way through the hole, Ridley was able to put his foot on the gas and didn't look back until he had plowed over safety Jairus Byrd.
Cannon was flagged for a hold in the third quarter, but other than that, he had the best game of any Patriots offensive linemen, particularly in the running game.
In the fourth quarter, Blount had a seven-yard carry off the right side that wasn't even supposed to go that way. It was thanks to some nice blocks by Cannon that Blount didn't end up being tackled behind the line of scrimmage. He initially ran toward the offense's left, but defensive tackle Kyle Williams was in the backfield and ready to make a play. Instead, Blount shifted gears and cut back to the right.
Cannon was blocking defensive end Mario Williams initially, but slipped off him to get the linebacker. Blount was able to get past Williams, and Cannon's block at the second level allowed him to get the yards he needed.
Even when Cannon didn't think he would be clearing the way, he cleared the way, and was effective doing it.
There are some soft run defenses in the AFC playoffs, including the Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts and San Diego Chargers. Not every run defense is going to be as easy to move around as the Bills, who finished the season ranked 23rd in yards allowed per rush attempt (4.4 YPA), but the Patriots may have to call on their offensive line to open up some holes in a couple more front sevens if they are going to make it to the Super Bowl.
One other interesting note on the running game: we saw the Patriots use a unique formation a couple times, in which they had three players (two backs and one tight end) lined up behind the quarterback, one behind the other. Both times, tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (47) would motion out of the backfield. This was a formation the Patriots used twice when they were in the no-huddle. On one occasion, Hoomanawanui was flagged for an illegal motion, but it wasn't really his fault. The flag was for "moving forward at the time of the snap," according to the ever-eloquent Ed Hochuli, but it wouldn't have been a penalty if Tom Brady had waited for Hoomanawanui to get set.
Milestone day for Julian Edelman not without its cautions
One hundred catches, just the third player in Patriots history to accomplish that feat. One thousand receiving yards, just the 10th Patriot to ever hit that mark.
Those are remarkable accomplishments for Julian Edelman -- as is the fact that he was the only receiver to suit up for every game this year, and the only one to even play more than 12 games.
Caution lies in all those numbers.
There are other receivers on the roster -- Danny Amendola is a nice No. 2, and Kenbrell Thompkins saw his first playing time since injuring his hip in Week 13 -- but Shane Vereen has been marginally productive over the past few weeks, and the Patriots lost yet another vital piece of their offense when Aaron Dobson left the game with a foot injury and didn't return.
The offense is turning into a one-man show. Over the past two weeks, Edelman has been the target on 22 of Brady's 50 pass attempts. Edelman has been the Patriots most consistent, and most consistently available receiver, but that's not going to be enough in the playoffs. The Patriots need to figure out how to throw the ball to someone besides Edelman if they're going to go far in the postseason.
Sealing up the defensive tackle spot with Sealver Siliga
For months, the Patriots have searched for the right mix at defensive tackle in the wake of injuries to Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly.
Andre Neblett and Isaac Sopoaga have tried, but Sealver Siliga has the most potential of any defensive tackle on the roster.
Siliga has played 205 of a possible 287 snaps (71.4 percent) over the past four weeks, and has immediately become the best run-stopping defensive tackle in the lineup. He registered eight stuffed runs this week and logged his third sack in as many games.
His contributions in the running game jumped out the most because they were consistent, and because the Patriots have been missing exactly the presence that Siliga brings.
He showed great technique when asked to be a two-gap defender, holding strong at the point of attack to make sure he didn't give up either of his lanes. On this play, running back Fred Jackson ran straight ahead through the A-gap on the left side of the center.
Siliga was able to fight through the block using solid hand technique, swiping the guard's hands away so that he could attack the ballcarrier when he hit the line of scrimmage. That's exactly what happened, and Siliga was in position to make the play.
He was a key in keeping Jackson bottled up on a one-yard carry at 2:16 in the first quarter. This play is yet another example of a player doing his job despite the play not initially being designed to head their direction. Once again, Siliga was asked to contain two gaps, but this time, Jackson was running away from Siliga's side of the line.
The defensive tackle stayed patient; he didn't move out of his spot to attack the running back in the backfield and try to make a play. Instead, he simply took care of his blocker, winning leverage at the point of attack, and the play came to him when Jackson tried to cut it back across the formation.
Dont'a Hightower joined in, and the result was a tackle for a gain of just one yard.
Siliga isn't going to fix the Patriots run defense all by himself, but he is a good place to start. The Patriots had some questions about their depth at defensive tackle, but they may have found their answer in a player who wasn't even on the roster when those questions arose.
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