Too often this season, it seemed, the New England Patriots strayed from their successful rushing attack in favor of Tom Brady's rocket arm. Hey, there are more severe sins to make, but the Pats' passing attack has suffered through bouts of inconsistency at times this season. The running game should have gotten the opportunity to shoulder more of the load.
That's exactly what happened Sunday during the Patriots' 20-10 victory against the Carolina Panthers. New England had 40 rushing attempts and 32 passing plays, marking the first time all season that the Patriots ran the ball more than they chucked it. They also recorded a season-high 185 rushing yards, and the Patriots' first touchdown against Carolina came on a three-yard burst from an energized Kevin Faulk.
"We executed, just kept going at it, knew what we had to do and just kept going," said Faulk, who rushed 10 times for 58 yards.
Laurence Maroney was the team's workhorse. He tied a season high with 22 rushes for 94 yards, which was his second-best output in 2009. Sammy Morris chipped in with six carries for 35 yards.
Naturally, the pace of each game can dictate how often the Patriots need to run or pass, and that includes score, time remaining and other similar factors. Sunday, though, was a must-run game for the Patriots. With a driving rainstorm pounding the field throughout the majority of the game, along with a banged-up Brady and a checked-out Randy Moss, the Patriots weren't going to beat the Panthers without an effective running attack.
"That's something that we did relatively well, but obviously, I still think there's a lot of things that we can do better," said Morris, who was still upset with himself for his third-quarter fumble. "And I look at that as a positive."
Brady — who was nursing injuries to his ribs, right shoulder and right ring finger — appreciated the decreased workload. He dropped back to pass 32 times, the second-lowest total of the season.
"We executed pretty well," Brady said. "The backs ran hard. The offensive line got it. You never like to see unblocked guys in the hole, and I think our offensive line did a great job. We didn't get sacked today. It was a great performance by the offensive line. That's what we need to do when you have a day like this, when it's raining the whole game, and it's tough to get the ball consistently in the passing game, to throw it and catch it and execute well. The running game came up big."
The Patriots' offensive identity has changed this season. It might be a tough pill to swallow, but they're clearly not formidable enough to air it out like they did during their record-setting season of 2007. Whether it's due to Brady's health, a lack of receiving depth, a change at coordinator or all of the above, the passing game is a work in progress.
That's not to say the running game is among the league's elite, but the pieces are there to achieve success. For two months, it's been starting with Maroney and filtering down the depth chart to Faulk, Morris and Fred Taylor, who worked out on the field before Sunday's game and appears to be close to returning. That should only make the Patriots tougher to defend as the weather worsens in the season's final month.
"We're kind of a grind-it-out team," Brady said. "That's what it looks like to me. That's what we need here in the last quarter of the season."