Ezekiel Elliott has plenty of tread on the tyres, but the 28-year-old can restore a special personnel “grouping” to the New England Patriots’ offense. The set can help unleash both Elliott and fellow running back Rhamondre Stevenson, while also making Mac Jones a better quarterback.
Returning offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien is expected by ESPN’s Mike Reiss to put both backs on the field together: “And while there will be some level of a rotation in play, the Patriots’ traditional offense, which O’Brien is bringing back in part, also has a “pony” grouping that puts two running backs on the field at the same time.”
The “Pony” backfield is something the Patriots used for years up until last season. Unfortunately, O’Brien’s predecessor Matt Patricia largely shelved the package, despite Jones proving accurate within the set in 2021.
Patriots Already Familiar With Two-Back Set
Former defensive coordinator Patricia took over calling the plays after longtime OC Josh McDaniels left to become head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders in 2022. McDaniels was never shy about putting two running backs in the backfield, something NESN.com’s Zack Cox noticed during the ’21 campaign.
Going to the “Pony” package gave the Pats two potential workhorses to gash defenses on the ground. The dual-threat backfield kept opponents guessing about who would get the ball and when.
The personnel grouping also helped Jones improve his accuracy and challenge defenses further down the field, per Andrew Callahan of the Boston Herald: “Last season, the Patriots threw out the two-back chapter of their playbook, deploying two running backs on just a dozen of their more than 1,000 offensive snaps. But a year earlier, however, Jones dropped back 75 times in this personnel grouping and posted respectable numbers: an 85.3 passer rating and a 7.4 yards per attempt average, per Sports Info. Solutions.”
It makes sense Jones was a better passer with two legitimate running backs behind him. Two potential ball-carriers naturally means there are more opportunities for fake handoffs, misdirection and play-action passing against defenses loading the box to stop the run.
Alternatively, a “Pony” backfield gives an offense chances to isolate a competent, pass-catching running back against a mismatched linebacker in pass coverage. Fortunately for the Patriots, Elliott has experience of all of these things within this scheme from his time with the Dallas Cowboys.
All-Pro Experienced in Special Backfield Set
Elliott shared multiple snaps with Tony Pollard last season. The Cowboys used both backs in a variety of ways, including to empty the box at the goal-line.
Pollard went in motion to give Elliott a soft middle to exploit for two rushing touchdowns against the Detroit Lions. The success of the personnel was highlighted by Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News.
Tellingly, the final play of these highlights was a play-action pass from quarterback Dak Prescott to tight end Peyton Hendershot. It’s easy to envisage O’Brien and the Patriots doing something similar when tight ends Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki share the field with Elliott and Stevenson.
There are other ways to take advantage of having two running backs in the game. Such as splitting one back out as a receiver, the way Pollard was in this formation during Cowboys’ training camp a year ago, per Gehlken.
Stevenson isn’t the receiving threat Pollard is, but No. 38 still made 69 receptions from 88 targets last season. O’Brien might prefer to use Ty Montgmery, a converted wide receiver, as a pass-catching back who can be moved across formations.
Veteran Montgomery is the Patriots’ best “sub back,” but Stevenson is better suited as the lead rusher. His 1,040-yard season means Stevenson will still be the starter, but Elliott should get plenty of reps in a “Pony” package Jones needs to be a bigger part of the offense.
As Callahan noted, “this grouping, the ‘Pony’ package, has been a safe changeup for the Patriots whenever their backfield talent has outweighed their receiver.”
Elliott, Stevenson and Montgomery ensure that’s still the reality for New England’s offense, even after the team added Gesicki and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in free agency.