Patriots’ Running Game Has Been ‘Huge Strength’ This Season, Causing Tom Brady to Take Notice

For nearly a decade, the Patriots have been known as a pass-first team on offense. That strategy isn’t going to change anytime soon. But the emergence of a sound and productive running game has at least shifted the offense’s methods in New England.

Stevan Ridley, who ranks third in the AFC with 939 rushing yards, has brought new life to a team that hasn’t produced an effective running game since Corey Dillon‘s last days in New England in 2006.

Ridley’s contributions have proven vital in the emergence of a more balanced offense in New England, and quarterback Tom Brady is just one person taking notice.

“There was a lot of competition at running back in the early part of the season, and that whole group has really been a huge strength of our team,” Brady said during his weekly appearance on WEEI’s Dennis and Callahan Morning Show on Monday.

The improved ground game has forced defenses to turn at least some of their attention away from Brady, allowing the quarterback more time and freedom to work the ball downfield. The production from that change has been noticeable.

Brady has seen less pressure up front as the season has worn on, even with an injury-stricken offensive line. He’s been as close to perfect over the past five games as any quarterback in football, throwing 14 touchdowns and zero — that’s right, not a one — interceptions during the stretch. While much of that success can be attributed to Brady’s precision and decision-making, much of it has been a result of the attention the running game demands.

Ridley has provided the punch out of the backfield for much of the season. But even as he looks to become just the third Patriots back to reach the 1,000-yard plateau in the past eight seasons, there is more to the resurgent ground-and-pound attack than just Ridley’s contributions.

“What our running backs have been able to do both in the pass game and the run game — and not that I didn’t think they could do it, it’s just they didn’t have the opportunity to prove it — and I think what those guys have done, Shane [Vereen], Danny [Woodhead] and Stevan and Brandon Bolden when he’s been in there, they’ve just taken advantage of their opportunities,” Brady said. “It’s really cool to see as a veteran player when young guys get opportunities and they take advantage of them.”

Woodhead and Vereen have both had major impacts with their versatility, in both the running and passing games. Woodhead sparked the offense in a win over the Bills a few weeks ago, and Vereen was the spark for the Patriots’ 49-point outburst against the Jets on Thanksgiving. Bolden, who is serving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy, has been a contributor with some hard-nosed running and in providing relief for Ridley at times. The entire stable of backs has been productive, which is an uncommon but pleasant sight to see.

After such a long wait, the Patriots finally have a productive running game again. And just as Brady said, the contributions have been “huge.”

Have a question for Luke Hughes? Send it to him via Twitter at @LukeFHughes or send it here.

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