Commentary

Ground-and-pound style points

'Baggers are loving the run game; Can O-line stay strong for two more Sundays?

Updated: January 14, 2014, 5:38 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

It is sometimes said that style points don't count in the NFL. It's just about bottom-line results.

But this week's New England Patriots mailbag leading into the AFC Championship Game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field has a heavy emphasis on the style of play the team has adopted.

It's been ground-and-pound, smash-mouth, wear-you-down football.

When we think back to the team's last two Super Bowl championships, with Antowain Smith as the lead running back in 2003 and Corey Dillon as the lead back in 2004, this 2013 team has a similar look with 250-pound LeGarrette Blount leading the charge.

Could that lead to two more wins and another Super Bowl championship? That's where we start this week.

Q. I'm loving the ride and as impressed as anyone at the Pats' transformation to the running game. But I have to wonder, where was it before? Did the coaches not see it until they were forced to by injuries and fumble-itis? -- Josh (West Hartford, Conn.)

A. Josh, I think there are multiple layers in the answer. Start with LeGarrette Blount. He's looked like a different running back the last month and, as Bill Belichick said on sports radio WEEI, a big part of it has been how he's altered his running style. "He's played over his pads very well over the last four to six weeks," Belichick told "The Salk & Holley" program, explaining that the low pad level has made it challenging for defenders to get clean shots on him while allowing Blount to push the pile or bounce off tacklers who can't get their arms around his big body. Blount is unique in that he's a "halfback in a fullback's body." Then look at the overall personnel on offense. Outside of receiver Julian Edelman, one could make a case that their best asset right now is a deep running back corps and powerful blocking in the run game. So there is an element to playing to your strengths that is part of this "transformation." Of course, holding on to the football is also key because none of it matters if they're putting the ball on the ground.

Q. Apart from the things that obviously show up on the stat sheet, I think the Patriots' win over the Colts truly underlines the great battles won by the Patriots in the trenches on both sides. The O-line has had its struggles earlier in the year but this was one good performance. On defense, there were the obvious INTs, but there were a couple long completions that are just a testament to Andrew Luck's ability as he was hit hard while throwing and any other QB would have lobbed those balls up in air. -- Nayab (Las Vegas)

A. Nayab, that has been one of the noticeable differences over the last three games or so. The Patriots are, more often than not, winning the battle up front on both sides. Defensively, this upcoming matchup against the Broncos is a good one to highlight the difference of what we saw Nov. 24 in the Patriots' 34-31 win over the Broncos, when Denver had 280 rushing yards. The Patriots are sturdier at the line of scrimmage and the late-season emergence of second-year defensive tackle Sealver Siliga is a big part of that. On offense, the running game has been more decisive. That said, I would point out a few struggles in short-yardage against the Colts (LeGarrette Blount stopped on third-and-2, James Develin stopped on third-and-1), so knowing Bill Belichick will always focus on those corrections, I would expect that "humble pie" to be served to players this week.

Q. Do you think Denver's elevation will contribute to a less explosive run game by both teams? -- Seth Z. (Goshen, Idaho)

A. Seth, I don't think it will be a huge factor, as long as the defense doesn't have to play 90 snaps like it did against the Broncos on Nov. 24. The 90 snaps were easily a non-overtime season high. The bigger issue, to me, is that all but three players on the active roster haven't played in a road playoff game as members of the Patriots, because the team's last road playoff game was in 2006. This is going to be a great environment for football and we don't know how the players will respond until the moment arrives. If the regular season is any indication, they will respond well, as players have generally met every challenge.

Q. Mike, how big a change is it to the offense adding a fullback into the mix? Seems that since James Develin has been playing, they are running with more gumption and the O-line is fired up to be creating running lanes for our RBs. Is this a major rework to the playbook? -- @halifaxdave (Halifax, Nova Scotia)

A. It's not a major rework of the playbook, which is pretty expansive after 14 years (e.g. think of when fullback Heath Evans was here). More than anything, I think it speaks to James Develin's development and hard-nosed approach. He's playing well, which has led to more opportunities for him, and as guard Logan Mankins said after the game, "Our fullback, I don't know if he's gotten that much credit this year, but he's been outstanding. He's been another element to our team that we were lacking and he's done a great job for us. Any time you get that many rushing attempts, you feel like you're controlling the line of scrimmage and that's where games are won and lost." Over the last two games, Develin has played 33 and 34 snaps, which are season highs. Through 17 games, he's averaged 20 snaps per game, so you see the increase.

Q. Hey Mike, I have to say I love this approach, hard physical football and a huge mental toughness. I just wish we had more talent going along with it. If Rob Gronkowski and Vince Wilfork were healthy I would love the chances of winning it all. But Denver, Seattle or San Francisco might be too much. Your thoughts? -- Philipp (Germany)

[+] EnlargeJames Develin
Jim Davis/Getty ImagesIt's no coincidence that James Develin's development at fullback has corresponded with the Patriots' increased production on the ground.

A. Philipp, I don't think anyone would be surprised if the Patriots won it all. This has been a consistent theme all season -- they've shown they can beat anyone and lose to anyone. Right now, they're playing as well as we've seen them, which is what any team wants at this time. I'd caution anyone from counting them out.

Q. Special-teams play was probably the weakest phase of the game with the high snap/injury to the punter Ryan Allen, as well as three illegal block in the back penalties during some pretty good return runs. Who do you see the Pats bringing in to look at in the punting position, if Allen can't go? Zoltan Mesko is under contract to the Bengals so he is not an option. Would the Patriots look at Chris Kluwe, or is there someone else who has NFL experience? -- Andy (Stratford, Conn.)

A. Andy, I'd be surprised if they go for Kluwe. Ideally, a team wants someone who has punted in games recently and that's why Shawn Powell (Bills/Bengals) would be a top candidate if it comes to that. He was in for a workout with the Patriots in November. At the same time that Powell was in for a workout, the Patriots also looked at Robert Malone. Those are two names to keep on the radar.

Q. Mike, if the Patriots do happen to advance to the Super Bowl, which team would present the more favorable matchup, the Seahawks or the 49ers? Both teams have amazing defenses and there really isn't much of a difference there, but I see the Seahawks as a more favorable matchup due to Colin Kaepernick having a bigger, more accurate arm than Russell Wilson. -- Steve (Cambridge, Mass.)

A. Steve, I think they'd both be tough, but if given the choice, I'd say the Seahawks are the more favorable matchup because I have a few more questions about their passing game. Also, the 49ers have experience in the Super Bowl from having played in it last year, which I think is another positive in their favor.

Q. Mike, now that Denver and New England are meeting in Denver for the AFC Championship, I think back to the end of the Jets game when the refs' call took away a Patriots victory. If he doesn't make that call, the championship game is in Foxborough. My question: Was a call for that pushing infraction made in any other game, regular or post-season, this year? I'd like to know just how much of a fluke that call was. -- John (Los Angeles, Calif.)

A. John, I don't believe that call was made in another game this year. Team president Jonathan Kraft referenced the play in remarks to 98.5 The Sports Hub on Saturday, in the context of what has unfolded with NFL officiating this season. I understand what you are saying about if the call was different, but at the same time, I do think there is a general understanding those things even themselves out over time. For example, if I was a Colts follower right now, I'd be steamed that the tripping call on Joe Vellano wasn't made. That was right at the decisive turning point in the game.

Q. Hey Mike, once again this team has taken us fans on a magical ride. My only concern going into the AFC Championship Game is our lack of an outside threat. If Kenbrell Thompkins can't go due to a suspected concussion and if Aaron Dobson is still in a walking boot, then I am concerned about not being able to get outside separation. Don't get me wrong, I love the running game, I am just stating my one concern with the offense for the next two games. -- Jay (Revere, Mass.)

A. Jay, I think it's a fair concern. It highlights, to me, why it's important to get that running game going because it sets up the play-action game. Danny Amendola's 53-yard catch against the Colts is the prime example of it. That's a long pass that threatened the deep part of the field, but without that play-action to get the Colts' to bite up toward the line of scrimmage, it probably doesn't happen.

Q. Hi Mike. With Josh Boyce on IR, Aaron Dobson hobbled, and Kenbrell Thompkins perhaps sidelined with a concussion, it seems almost time to close the book on the young receivers who started the season as a primary focus in the offense. Each of them showed flashes at times, but on the whole I think they had limited rookie impacts. What's your take on them going forward as a group and individually. Which of them might be poised to take that all-important (per the gospel according to Belichick) big step in the second year? -- Danny (Waltham, Mass.)

A. Danny, big potential for that trio, and the example I plan to point to a lot this offseason is the jump that second-year Bengals receiver Marvin Jones made this year. He looked like one of the NFL's better receivers to me and it was all a result of that development from Year 1 to Year 2. I think the arrow is absolutely pointing up for all three young receivers and there should be a feeling of optimism surrounding their future. While the Patriots could add a low-to-moderately priced veteran to balance things off a bit if Julian Edelman isn't back, I would have few reservations if they simply stay the course. The core is intact.

Q. Mike, have you seen Dobson and was he wearing a boot? I fear he may be one that gets put on IR if he's not available to play this weekend. -- Bob (San Diego)

A. Yes, Bob, the last time I saw Dobson he had the boot on the left foot. My guess is that we don't see him this week, and if the Patriots win, they would hold out hope maybe he could play in the Super Bowl. Just educated guessing on what is probably a fluid situation based on not just Dobson's health, but other roster needs.

Q. I think the wild card in the game may be Jamie Collins. If he can cover Julius Thomas and Aqib Talib can handle Demaryius Thomas, they should be able to slow down the Broncos. This, combined with the new power football style, should result in a different game than the first, much more advantageous to the Pats. Thoughts? -- Johnnysox (Housatonic, Mass.)

A. Johnny, I thought Jamie Collins was impressive in Saturday's win over the Colts. After rewatching the game, he was even more impressive than I initially thought. Wow. What a breakout performance, which was a topic I wrote about after the game but probably understated it. Overall, I think the Patriots' defense is more equipped to handle the Broncos' rushing game in their sub package and I'd put Collins and defensive tackle Sealver Siliga (didn't play Nov. 24) as two main reasons why.

Q. Mike, I fully understand that we cannot base a team's or a player's future off of one game, but does Jamie Collins' spectacular play toward the end of the season as well as the rumors that Spikes was put on the IR in part due to tardiness pretty much guarantee that Spikes' days are done in New England? -- Pedro (Miami, Fla.)

A. Pedro, I'd be surprised if Spikes is back in 2014. I think the Patriots are planning to move on. Spikes brought a lot to the team and I don't think that should be overlooked. At the same time, whether he was placed on IR in part because of being tardy or not, I just focus on the bottom line: He was tardy and that's just not acceptable, especially because it wasn't like this was the only "issue" over the last four years. I think the time has come for the sides to part ways.

Q. We see shots of Vince Wilfork on the sidelines all the time, so we know he is with the team. How about the other IR players? Which ones are with the team? Is that the expected behavior? How about Brandon Spikes? Did he go home or is he with the team and can we read anything into that? -- Mike (Westborough, Mass.)

A. Mike, those are case-by-case situations, but Spikes went to Los Angeles to get a second opinion on his knee and wasn't around the team Saturday. Most IR players aren't part of the mix like Wilfork and Jerod Mayo. They are the exception more than the rule.

Q. Will the Pats go with the 2-deep safety shell they used in the first match-up, or will they be forced to use a safety to help out on Julius Thomas? -- Brandon (Wakefield)

A. Brandon, if there is one thing we've learned over the years in games where the Patriots faced Peyton Manning, they can't just do the same thing over and over again; Manning is too sharp. My initial thoughts on the plan, and these are based off discussion with Tedy Bruschi, is to adopt a similar plan to the Dolphins games this year -- play from the inside-out and if the quarterback is going to beat you, make him do it by having to throw downfield and outside the numbers.

Q. Hi Mike. After a series of draft busts in the secondary, it looks like the Pats have turned it around with Devin McCourty, Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan (fingers crossed). Do you think they changed something about their evaluation system or is it just statistics evening out? -- Paul (Seattle, Wash.)

A. Paul, I'd say more statistics evening out. It was some rocky going there for a stretch (Brandon Meriweather, Terrence Wheatley, Darius Butler, Patrick Chung), but I think if we looked at every team in the NFL, you'd see similar struggles at various positions. It's why people often refer to the draft as an inexact science.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Spikes
AP Photo/Damian StrohmeyerThere's a good chance we've seen the last of Brandon Spikes in a Patriots uniform.

Q. Hi Mike, do you think the Patriots will be drafting any more players recommended by Urban Meyer anytime soon? Jermaine Cunningham failed a PED test and was incredibly inconsistent, Hernandez is in jail and it appears Spikes was a constant disruption that couldn't grow up, though he did make pretty significant contributions over the last four years. -- Tim (Georgetown, Mass.)

A. Tim, we could add Chad Jackson to the mix as well. I don't think it necessarily means that the Patriots wouldn't select an Ohio State player, but maybe the process in which they do so is a little different than what it was when those picks were made. It seemed that Belichick put a lot of stock into Meyer's recommendation, almost trumping other scouting reports from the team's staff, and my guess is that since Belichick is a smart guy, he probably looks back and won't let that happen again. None of us are perfect.

Q. While Belichick as G.M. has certainly made some questionable calls in the past, I feel like he does not get enough credit for the team he assembled this year. If we had not been stricken by so many injuries, I think we probably would have been the best and most balanced team in the NFL given how our defense played earlier in the season and our offense in the middle. What are your thoughts on the team's construction this season and how it looks moving forward into the next? -- George (Boston)

A. George, a tremendous job by Belichick and what stands out is the relentlessness in working to address areas that turned out to be deficient either through injury or otherwise. Defensive tackle is a good example. That's a tough hand to be dealt in losing your top three players by the fifth week in the regular season (Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Armond Armstead). In one respect, one could criticize the team for not focusing on the position in the draft, but they basically created three picks -- undrafted Joe Vellano, waiver claim Chris Jones and street free-agent Sealver Siliga -- while trading for Isaac Sopoaga. Not everything has worked out, but the effort to plug it up and teaching of the staff stands out. Strip it all down, and look at it from a pure football perspective, I appreciate watching the excellence of those involved.

Q. Who, with the exception of Brady, would you say was the Patriots' MVP this year? I would say Julian Edelman because he managed to fill the Welker role. -- Emmanuel (Brattleboro, Vt.)

A. Emmanuel, I like the choice of Edelman. I'd put him at the top of the list along with cornerback Aqib Talib. I haven't seen such a high level of cornerback play, and the coaching staff matching up with Talib, since the days of Ty Law. From a pure football perspective, it's been fun to watch.

Q. Mike, if Adam Vinatieri ends up in the Hall of Fame, which helmet do you think he wears? I would argue that it SHOULD be Pat the Patriot, but I wonder if there is too much bad blood for that to happen. Your thoughts? -- Joseph (Andover, Mass.)

A. Joseph, as we know, players don't go in with a specific helmet/hat like the baseball Hall of Fame. I think part of it will depend on how much longer the 41-year-old Vinatieri plays. I don't sense much bad blood at this point. I think the sides are in a pretty good place, with Bill Belichick himself trumpeting Vinatieri's Hall credentials.

Q. Hey Mike, real quick question. Why is Matthew Slater used in the 1-WR power package? Is he considered the best blocker among the wideouts? -- Jacob (Bethlehem, Penn.)

A. Jacob, the Patriots' wide receivers are all competitive and show great effort as blockers, which I view as a credit to them and their position coach, Chad O'Shea. Slater is the best of the bunch and a good example is on LeGarrette Blount's first touchdown run. If you have a chance, rewatch the play and lock in on Slater on the left side as he turns safety LaRon Landry and helps open the running lane. That role has been something that has evolved over the course of the season. Slater didn't play an offensive snap through the first 10 games. Over the last seven games, he's played 19 offensive snaps, mostly (if not all) in that 1-WR package.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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