While the sight of the Patriots running the ball for more than 200 yards a game — or at least for more plays than Tom Brady throws — can be hard to get used to, very few people have faulted New England for putting an increased emphasis on the rushing attack this year.
An inability to run the ball was seen as one of the major problems that had kept the Patriots from turning their recent Super Bowl appearances into victories. Brady threw almost exclusively, the team had trouble draining the clock at the end of games and an offense that was almost perfect in every other respect had little to no options for plays that just needed a quality rusher.
For some Patriots observers, it's no coincidence that the last Super Bowl win was also during a time when a legitimate rushing threat, Corey Dillon, was in the backfield. Having at least some semblance of a running game has been seen as key for several years now if Brady and his receiving corps are to find the freedom they need to dominate games.
But, while the Patriots' rushing attack this year has done well to assuage many of those concerns, the importance of the versatile, yardage-chewing group may be even more valuable than that.
Sure, the running game frees up Brady's passes. Yes, it balances the attack and helps the team run out the clock at the end of the game. It's nice to have a group that at least makes the team bigger than Brady's miracle-working arm (the defense stepping up and being a big part of the Patriots' success this year has helped that, too).
But the strength of the New England running game may extend far beyond beating the Broncos, getting a winning record this season or even returning to the Super Bowl. As Brady gets older and continues to weather blows from the QB spot, the Patriots must have a varied attack if they want to continue their success. They must have all parts of the team clicking if they want to return to a level where they can not only appear in the Super Bowl but also win it.
The young group of guys playing running back for the Patriots now can make that happen.
While New England may never again call on a rusher like in the days of Dillon, the Patriots have actually done one better in who they've collected for the backfield this season. Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen have a range of abilities that have allowed New England to run the ball in just about any situation, with fresh bodies coming in to keep the assault going.
On Sunday, the Patriots showed for a second game in a row how having those four pieces working together could be better than one. Ridley ran for 151 yards on 28 carries (that's 5.4 yards — or half a first down — a carry), and he scored a touchdown. Vereen touched the ball once but easily took it in for a score. Bolden ran for 54 yards, and Woodhead added in another 47, including the majestic run on third-and-17 that showed how devastating this running game has been to opposing teams' defenses. Woodhead's run also reaffirmed the strength of the Patriots' blocking as well as the unique physical qualities of the rushers (as Woodhead's small size and quickness allows him to squeak through defenses).
The running attack not only set the tone for the game and collected first downs regularly but also did a considerable job deflating the Broncos and giving Brady a chance to quarterback the offense without having to really quarterback the offense. He'll throw all the passes he needs to, but he's just as valuable to the team when he can survey the defense, point the way and get the ball to teammates who can make the plays, rather than taking the load and trying to make magic happen every week.
The effect of that balanced attack was a win this week, but it could soon snowball into greater benefits. A Brady who isn't getting sacked, rushed or hurried several times a drive will be more rested and strong going into the late parts of games and the season. A Brady who can let his young teammates absorb the blows and chew up six yards at a time won't have to be at the mercy of his seven-yard outs going to dropped passes (and ended drives). A Brady who knows, when his team gets the ball back with a few minutes left to go, that he won't have to make something happen in three plays lest the offense punt and watch the other team run a two-minute drill for victory. A Brady who will have less pressure, more freedom and more room to shine.
Ridley acknowledged Sunday that the rushing game can take a good deal of the load off of Brady, and the team can see it working. The Patriots were in their rapid-fire pass attack early Sunday, finding Wes Welker early and often with the kinds of drives that take just two or three minutes off the clock. But instead of scoring quickly and then seeing the other team chew up minutes, the Patriots could switch over to some run-heavy movement, mixing in passes and dictating the tempo of the game.
For as good as the Patriots' offense has been for years, it's often lacked that — the ability to control the game and time of possession. That has been due not to the offense playing poorly, but rather because the offense is so good that it gets its work done quickly — too quickly, sometimes.
The Patriots now have a core of runners who can consistently take the pressure and wear and tear off Brady as well as free the offense up and help the team control the game. Better yet, the group is just that — a group — meaning the Patriots can switch pieces in and out in different situations. Rather than relying on an established veteran, New England is making the most of its running backs in their youth, where they can stay fresh and get some people dreaming that this high-yardage running attack could be around for years.
In Ridley, Bolden, Woodhead and Vereen, the Patriots can rush the ball without the sinking feeling that came with New England's running game in years past, when trying to be balanced meant two-yard gains and the grinding of teeth.
Patriots wins could be prettier with Brady throwing dozens of times, breaking records and making pinpoint plays. But as coach Bill Belichick showed the last time he got the Patriots all the way to the top, pretty is second to executing in a way that brings consistent victories. New England could win with Brady throwing a lot, but it is assured a better result with the running game playing as well as it is. And it could be what Brady has needed to give him an edge physically and mentally in the late thrust of his career.
Belichick has always been known to find a new wrinkle or approach in how he attacks game plans, with the rest of the NFL often following. He could be starting the most unlikely of changes now — a running back revolution, behind young, interchangeable backs.
Or he could just be doing his thing, where he looks through his tool shed before a game and grabs whatever pieces he fancies will win him the game.
Whatever it is, this much is certain: The running game is back in New England, and that can be a good thing.
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