Film Review: Damien Harris, the Patriots' Bell-Cow Back Moving Forward

Running back Damien Harris has the looks of a top ten player at his position after Sunday night's performance against the Ravens.

This Film review was conducted and written by PatriotMaven's Max McAuliffe, along with lead scout for Spartan Scouts, Arnav Sharma.  

The New England Patriots' game plan heading into Sunday night's matchup against the Baltimore Ravens was by no means under wraps. The plan was straightforward, simplistic, and rather old-fashioned. One that could likely be predicted by not just anyone holding a clipboard, however, also anyone sitting on a couch. 

The plan to pound the rock, dominate the time of possession, and let Cam Newton game-manage when he had to worked like a charm against the league's best DVOA run defense through Week 9. That game plan led all the way to a 23-17 victory in the elements. Fittingly enough, while rain notoriously symbolizes renewal and change, the Patriots seemed to change their offensive approach for the better through the wet and windy storm last Sunday night. With that change, comes more change, as Damien Harris appeared to solidify himself as New England's top running back in Week 10. 

Harris rushed for 122 yards on 22 carries, finding space behind his tremendous offensive line. While the offensive line - the identity of the team - could make any running back look great (as they have this season), the performance from Harris was a lot more than just solid blocking and what meets the eye. While the offensive line of Isaiah Wynn, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, and Michael Owenwu put on a show, Harris undoubtably stole the spotlight.  

For potentially the first time since Cory Dillon, the Patriots have a true bell-cow caliber running back that can facilitate the team’s offense. At one point midway through the third quarter, Harris was sitting at 123 yards on 17 carries -- a staggering 7.2 yards per carry. These weren’t all free yards given to him by the stalwarts up front either; unlike Sony Michel, Harris consistently explodes and weaves his way to extra yards. 

There’s a certain je ne sais quoi trait that Arnav looks for in running backs, coined the Big Head trait (Silicon Valley, anyone?). The Big Head trait is best described as a natural tendency to consistently fall forwards while being tackled for 1-2 yards. Guys like Saquon Barkley, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Dalvin Cook all have it. Julian Edelman definitely had the trait from 2013-2016. Along with all of them, Damien Harris has the Big Head trait. In fact, he is currently averaging 1.07 yards over expected per rush, the sixth best figure in the league (per Next Gen Stats). 

With that, let's dive into the special night from Harris, and if he can in fact become that true bell-cow back as mentioned before. 

Off the Bat

Right from the jump, the Patriots affirmed their desire to run the football. The first five plays from scrimmage were (as you can see below) all run-heavy sets that left little guessing work to any defense on what the call was. 

Play 1. (1st and 10) 21 Personnel FB Wing Power, gain of 7

Play 2. (2nd and 3) 21 Personnel I-Formation Weak Side Power, gain of 4

Play 3. (1st and 10) 21 Personnel I-Formation Outside Zone Weak, gain of 7

Play 4. (2nd and 3) 21 Personnel I-Formation Lead Iso, gain of 3

Play 5. (1st and 10) 21 Personnel I-Formation Crack Toss Weak, no gain

These five runs all came out of 21 personnel, meaning New England deployed both a fullback and tight end to block each time.

2ND & 3 @ New England 37-yard line (13:13 remaining in 1st quarter)

2ND & 3 @ New England 37-yard line (13:13 remaining in 1st quarter)

The second run in this sequence was an especially great indicator for the type of game Harris would have. 

The play design is a variation of I-formation power, with a fake-counter from the fullback. The playside defensive edge’s assignment here is to pass rush and chase Newton, while the Will linebacker rotates down to play the edge against the run. Fullback Jakob Johnson, potentially because of the fake counter, is a tad late in getting to his C-gap opening block. Despite that, Harris squeezes through a tiny hole and is able to churn forward for four yards on a play that should have read 'no gain'. Just one example where Harris exceeds his expected rush yards, which here makes the difference between a 3rd and 3 or a first down.Harris continued pounding the ball on the ground and was able to effectively run both between the tackles and outside. Throughout the second and third quarters, he appeared to become even stronger and tougher to bring down. Which made for some of his best runs on the night later on. 

Play Breakdowns

1ST & 10 @ Baltimore 41-yard line (01:22 remaining in 2nd quarter)

1ST & 10 @ Baltimore 41-yard line (01:22 remaining in 2nd quarter)

Speaking of good, strong runs, this was one of his stronger runs of the night. This run was a part of New England's two-minute drill to close out the first half. This run would set up a crucial go-ahead touchdown pass from Jakobi Meyers to go up 14-10, as this run and another Harris run would ensue to then set up the big-time play. 

Here, the Patriots ran a crack toss out of that 21 I-formation we saw on the first drive. In fact, the run to the weak-side here is the same play-call that they ran for no gain on their fifth offensive snap of the game. This time it works out much better, as Harris uses great lateral speed and vision to get to the edge and cut the ball upfield for a 13-yard run. This play also just has incredible blocking (note Wynn's athleticism here), but it’s good to see that Harris is fairly effective on outside runs the same way he is inside. This versatility allowed the Patriots to run outside zone with him on a few occasions, which continued to help the inside run open up when they needed it. 

1ST & 10 AT New England 41-yard line (14:22 remaining in 3rd quarter)

1ST & 10 AT New England 41-yard line (14:22 remaining in 3rd quarter)

Harris would run for a 16-yard gain to get the second half started. Then, on this next play here, Harris would rush for an additional 25 yards, totaling to 41 yards on the first two plays of the second half. This run would be the one to eclipse 100 yards in the game for Harris (third career 100-yard rushing game).

However, not only would the run give him 100 yards on the night, the run would also coincidentally be Harris’ best run of the night. Once again, it comes out of 21 I-formation. This run is actually supposed to go into the B-gap, as shown by Jakob Johnson moving to lead-block there and Harris initially strafing. Harris, using his vision, spots a shuffling Patrick Queen, who appears to quickly be closing into the B-gap. Harris shows off one quick cut into the newly opened A-gap and bursts into the 2nd and 3rd levels. He completely avoids one open field tackle and lowers his shoulder into another, and drags on for another 10 yards after contact. Everything about this play is brilliant: the vision, the explosion, the power, and the finishing.

1ST & 10 AT New England 37-yard line (3:55 remaining in 2nd quarter)

1ST & 10 AT New England 37-yard line (3:55 remaining in 2nd quarter)

Harris’ combination of vision and finishing is truly what makes him so perfect for New England. This play where Harris is able to drag three Baltimore defenders with him, past the first down marker, perfectly summarizes how the night went for both parties. 

Hot Start, Cold Ending

After about halfway through the third quarter, Harris’ yardage began to take a hit. After netting 123 yards on his first 17 carries, he actually ended up netting -2 yards on his last five carries. This sudden decrease in yardage could be explained by a few factors:

1) Simply fatigue from heavy workload.

2) The Ravens began actively run blitzing with 8-9 man boxes. The defense sold out against the run to the point where their secondary rid of their deep safety and began immediately rotating to set the edge on outside runs.

3) The Patriots started running to the strong-side more, which made it easier for Baltimore to predict the direction of the run on their run blitzes.

4) Ryan Izzo could not control the edge down the stretch.

What Lies Ahead

One important point to mention is that most of Harris’ carries came in 21 personnel, meaning he had a fullback lead-blocking. We haven’t been able to see his running ability in more pass-friendly personnel groupings. Given that Harris has already demonstrated great vision and performance against 8 and 9 man boxes, the second-year back should be able to find success running inside zone, pin/pulls, and power in singleback and shotgun. 

With Harris showing flashes of one-cut ability, it’s very possible that Bill Belichick may look to use him in more versatile sets in the future to keep the offense balanced more effectively.

With all that said, Harris should not only expect to see different run fits coming his way, however, also an increased workload. 

Watching Harris in comparison to the other backs on this team is eye-opening. Even with Michel likely returning soon, this statement by Harris in the rain in Week 10 was not only enough to change the New England depth chart, but also the offensive approach through the remainder of the season. This offense is going to run Harris until he can't run anymore. 

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