The first hints that the Patriots might transition to a more zone-heavy running game came back in April.
With athleticism along the offensive line and speed at running back a necessity for the outside zone system, the Patriots selected guard Cole Strange and running back Pierre Strong with two of their first five draft selections. Plus, second-round pick Tyquan Thornton played under outside zone guru Jeff Grimes at Baylor.
Although Director of Player Personnel Matt Groh downplayed the connection, the numbers from the preseason suggest that the team is emphasizing the zone running game more this season.
"I'd like to think that if the player is good enough, we're going to find a way to use the player no matter what the scheme is," Groh told reporters on Monday morning. "Do some players do some things that are more accustomed to a run game in college or a run game from a previous team, to what they may have to do here? Yeah, but if they've got the skill set to learn how to do those things, then a lot of those things are able to transfer from one scheme to another."
In New England's three preseason games, 46 percent of their rushing attempts were zone schemes, meaning they still ran more gap schemes than zone plays. However, that's a significant increase from 21 percent zone schemes during the 2021 regular season, according to Pro Football Focus.
As with any schematic change, it takes time to implement something new, especially a rhythmic play like outside zone, where timing and continuity are critical to its success.
But the outside zone shift is still a work in progress for the Pats offensive line. In four outside zone rush attempts for the starting offensive line against the Raiders in the preseason finale, the Patriots managed just one yard with a four-yard loss and an offensive holding penalty.
One of the mantras the Patriots offensive line lives by is seeing the game through the same set of eyes, with most of the struggles being assignment based rather than technique breakdowns.
For example, blockers are lingering too long on the initial combination blocks along the line of scrimmage. The goal is to execute a quick double-team to help the blocker next to you overtake the defensive lineman, then work up to the linebacker level to set up bigger gains.
At times, the defensive front might call for blockers to forgo the initial double-team and work immediately to the second level to a linebacker. Either way, the second-level blocks aren't happening, leaving unblocked linebackers free to tackle the ball carrier near the line of scrimmage.
"I think that's a great way to look at it. It's one of the only position groups on the field that has five guys that are trying to look through the same lens all the time. That is very difficult, especially with all the different things defenses can do," Patriots Senior Football Advisor and Offensive Line coach Matt Patricia told reporters on Monday morning.
"That is something that is always trying to be improved as you go through the season. There has to be a starting point, and that's where we are at right now. Hopefully, it can be a good foundation moving forward."
Patricia explained that preseason games and training camp aren't necessarily about results. Instead, the team focuses more on the number of repetitions and the process in general rather than gaining yards.
"The emphasis isn't so much on what the production looks like at the moment," Patricia said. "When we work different runs in the run game, we have different techniques that we work, so whether it's zone techniques, or we run our gap schemes, or our double-team techniques, we just try to make sure our fundamentals are handled."
As the Patriots begin game-planning for regular-season opponents starting with the Miami Dolphins next week, New England might emphasize different runs that will be more successful against Miami's defense rather than only featuring outside zone or gap schemes.
During head coach Bill Belichick's 20-plus seasons with the team, the Patriots have always been a game plan-oriented operation on both sides of the ball. Although it seems like they're emphasizing more zone runs now, the Pats will also call plenty of gap runs this season.
To that point, the Patriots have done much better on their 32 gap runs this season. In the preseason finale against the Raiders, the starting offense attempted four gap runs and gained 28 yards, including a 13-yard gain by running back Rhamondre Stevenson on a crack toss.
"Right now, we'll run them into looks that maybe aren't great so that we can get the runs in and make sure we are getting enough reps at everything before the reps kind of get limited as we go forward."
"That's the great part about training camp. We have the opportunity to do that and tweak things as we go. As the season goes, we'll always modify and adjust as needed based on not only scheme but personnel," Patricia added.
Following the loss to the Raiders in the preseason finale, Belichick had a similar sentiment about how the Patriots will emphasize certain plays based on a game plan for a particular opponent.
"Some plays work well against some defenses, and against certain things, some plays don't. I don't say that one play is necessarily great against everything. I have a hard time with that," the Pats head coach said. "You have to be able to execute what you need to execute to win in that situation, against that opponent in that game. It changes from game to game for me. I think it's hard to do three things in this league and think that's going to be enough to win."
With back-to-back weeks of joint practices, Patricia explained that practicing against another team allows the coaching staff to see plays against different defenses. Instead of facing their own defense in every camp practice, now they can see how a particular play call works against a specific front their own defense might not run.
"It's always good for us to see a little bit of a different style or maybe a different look. It's not only a scheme-based thing but just different types of players. Talking about the Raiders and the different types of defensive ends they have. Chandler Jones is a different type of defensive end. That's a great opportunity to see a player like that, or [Maxx] Crosby who maybe plays blocks a little bit different than we do or what we saw previously and say, 'okay, how much of a problem does that give us?'"
By practicing different base plays throughout the summer, the Patriots now have a list of core concepts they can install into a game plan.
Some opposing defenses might give them looks or defensive fronts where outside zone will be a successful play, while others may not, and that's when the gap runs come into play.
Although it's true that New England adjusts to the opponents' tendencies, the overall execution along the offensive line has a ways to go before you can have confidence in the group.
The Patriots offensive line emphasizes the "seeing it through the same set of eyes" motto, and working towards that level of continuity is a must for the offense to succeed in the regular season.