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Over the course of an NFL season, a lot of things get talked about. Some factors are overblown, some aren’t addressed enough.
Sunday’s 41-28 win over the Texans by the Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs gave us ample reason to get back to something that had been apparent several times this season but fell through the cracks: Patriots running backs mentor Ivan Fears is one heck of a coach.
His group’s performance against the Texans was the icing on the cake in what has been a terrific season, especially considering that, outside of Danny Woodhead, the guys in Fears’s meeting room had played a grand total of 226 plays (less than 20 percent of a full season) combined.
Sure, the offensive line opened up some huge holes, and the Texans couldn’t get lined up and forgot to cover people, but Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Woodhead (injured on his first snap) were flawless except for one quarterback hurry allowed by Ridley in pass protection.
It’s really amazing what Fears has done with this group in two areas in which young backs struggle: choosing the right hole and pass protection.
Of the more than 500 running plays the Patriots have executed this season, you can just about count on one hand the amount of times a back’s decision on where to run the ball could be questioned: Vereen five, and Ridley and Woodhead one each.
That’s not quite as good as BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Woodhead last season (one total), but it’s still impressive. Young players try to do too much, sometimes get impatient, or don’t see things the right way. Fears has drilled his guys repeatedly so they know how to read their keys, and they don’t hesitate. They just go.
Vereen has come a long way this season with the ball in his hand. A very smart player, Vereen always has been the best downfield receiver of the group, and he has shown the ability to play well in space and to make a guy miss because of his outstanding agility. But there were lingering doubts inside the team about his toughness, especially inside the tackles. Vereen never will be Ridley in that regard, but he has greatly improved and is a much more well-rounded back.
As far as pass blocking, this year’s group has really stood out. In 2011, Green-Ellis and Woodhead combined to allow 14.5 total quarterback pressures (3.5 sacks, 7 hurries, and 4 knockdowns).
This season, the running backs have allowed half as many quarterback pressures (7): 1 sack, 2 hurries, and 4 knockdowns.
The backs were poor in this area in training camp. We wrote on Aug. 13: “The running backs were fairly pathetic trying to block linebackers in one-on-one drills — losing each rep until the last.”
Against the Texans, the running backs executed four of their five blitz pickups to perfection.
Fears is known as a relentless perfectionist. On game day, he assumes the role of teacher, always consulting and discussing with his backs what they saw on the previous play and how it should have been done. He rides his backs hard on the practice field and in the meeting rooms, and you know he was doing extra work leading up to the Texans game.
Not only do the Texans blitz often (44.2 and 42.9 percent vs. the Patriots, which trailed only the Rams for frequency this season), but the running backs got sloppy at the end of the season. Vereen looked bad giving up a sack against the Jaguars, and Brandon Bolden and Woodhead couldn’t keep Tom Brady from being planted in the turf. Ridley let Brady take a shot against the Dolphins.
Vereen and Bolden were so poor you had to wonder if they would see the field again in that situation in the playoffs. Well, when Woodhead went out against the Texans, the Patriots had no choice but to trust Vereen and hope that Fears had brought him along.
As always, Fears had his guys ready in a big spot.
The positional ratings against the Texans:
Quarterback (4.5 out of 5)
Brady missed a few throws, but his decision-making was terrific and he made some key adjustments that burned the Texans. It was Brady being Brady on the second-and-1 play with 3:36 left in the third, where he likely audibled out of a run play. It was amazing that he identified Brooks Reed as the “Mike” linebacker — meaning the line was responsible for him if he rushed — when he was standing out in the flat. Wouldn’t you know it, Reed rushed and was picked up. The result was a 14-yard gain. It was a testament to Brady’s steadiness that he felt pressure much more than it appeared (31 percent of dropbacks, fourth-most this season). That was some throw by Brady on third and 8 with 13:31 left in the second quarter to Wes Welker. Logan Mankins allowed a little penetration so Brady couldn’t step into the throw, yet he still threw a dart. Don’t know how he did it, but Brady completed a 14-yard pass to Aaron Hernandez in the third quarter that fit between the flying arms of J.J. Watt and Barrett Ruud. The deep throws to Welker and Vereen were just dropped in a bucket. Phenomenal.Continued...