NEPD Staff Writer: Dan Hope
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and his ability to pass the ball has been the backbone of the Patriots’ offense ever since Brady took over for Drew Bledsoe in 2001, led the team to a Super Bowl and started building one of the greatest quarterback careers of all-time.
The Patriots’ offense has a different look and feel, however, this season.
Even in his 13th NFL season, Brady is still as good as any quarterback in the league. Brady has still been throwing the ball with sharp velocity and precise accuracy, distributing the ball efficiently and intelligently and continuing to be one of the league’s best leaders.
In previous seasons, however, the Patriots have seemed reliant on Brady’s passing as their only explosive source of offense. Early this season, the Patriots are establishing a very reliable power running game, and are showing signs of becoming a run-first offense.
The Patriots’ have been very productive rushing this season, especially in their last two games. The Patriots rank third league-wide with 165.4 rushing yards per game, and in have averaged 249 rushing yards over their past two games against the Buffalo Bills and Denver Broncos.
Statistically, the Patriots have been a better rushing team in recent seasons than many may expect. They ranked in the top 15 in the NFL in rushing yardage every year from 2006-2010, although they dropped to 20th last season.
Early this season, however, the Patriots’ rushing offense has taken on new life.
Leading this success has been the emergence of second-year running back Stevan Ridley, who has already surpassed his rookie season totals in just five games with 102 carries, 490 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
Ridley ranks fifth in the NFL through five weeks in rushing yards, and his performance is no fluke. Ridley is exactly what the Patriots need him to be — a big, powerful runner who runs with physicality and can pound the ball up between the tackles — but he also has a great burst out of the backfield, and uses his speed and size well to generate momentum for big runs.
While the Patriots have managed to amass a decent amount of rushing yardage each year, a big reason for that has been the sheer amount of offensive plays they have had as a result of their passing success, and it has been many years since they have had an explosive running back who is also a consistent source of offense. The Patriots have not had a running back finish in the league’s top 15 in rushing yardage since Corey Dillon in 2004.
That year, Dillon finished third in the NFL with 1,635 yards. Ridley has a similar skill set to Dillon, and the potential for that level of production. Through five games, Ridley is on pace to rush for 1,568 yards this year, which assumes he stays healthy, something that has not been an issue for him in the past, and remains at his current level of production.
Ridley, however, is far from the only reason for the Patriots’ rushing success. They have been sparked by undrafted rookie Brandon Bolden, who has emerged as a second reliable, physical and powerful runner in the Patriots’ offense in the past two games.
There is nothing flashy about Bolden’s game, but he runs hard, has a good combination of size and speed and has emerged as a terrific spell back to Ridley over the past two games, gaining a combination of 191 yards.
Adding even more to the Patriots’ run game is Danny Woodhead, who is able to settle in to his role as a third-down and situational back with two running backs having emerged solidly ahead of him. Woodhead’s best skills are his ability to catch passes out of the backfield and pick up blitzes as a blocker, but he is a shifty runner with great vision, and he adds a different, complementary dimension to the offense from what Ridley and Bolden bring.
There is more to running success, of course, than just the players running the ball. The Patriots’ run blocking has also been tremendous over the past two games, as an offensive line that was feared to be a weakness in the preseason has emerged as a strength.
The Patriots have been especially successful running on the left side, where Nate Solder is emerging as a star left tackle next to Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins. Additionally, the Patriots have a tremendous blocking tight end in Rob Gronkowski as well as Deion Branch, a terrific perimeter blocker for a wide receiver, who was re-signed before the team’s third game after being a preseason cut. The Patriots have had great success running to the outside with Gronkowski and/or Branch as ball-side blockers.
In the past, the majority of rushing yardage in the Brady offense has been a result of the passing offense taking defenders away from the line and leaving running lanes open.
This year, with a league-leading 191 rushing attempts and a yards per carry average of 4.3, tied for 9th in the league, the Patriots are starting to bring more defenders to the line, but are continuing to be successful thanks to the strong power running game created by their big, physical backs in combination with a great run blocking unit.
Now, the Patriots are able to use their run to set up the pass, by bringing defenders out of the secondary and in to defend the run, which in turn creates more intermediate passing lanes, which has always been the team’s most effective source of offense with Brady at signal-caller.
The Patriots did something else surprising in their most recent game versus the Broncos. For the first time since 2010, and for only the second time since the beginning of the 2009 season, when Brady returned from a torn ACL, they ran for more yards in the game than they passed for.
With 191 rushing attempts this season, six more than they have passing attempts, including a 94 to 67 difference in the favor of the run in their past two games, a change is being seen in how the Patriots’ offense operates. The question now, of course, is whether this change will be sustained as the season continues on.
Concerns have been expressed regarding Brady’s pocket presence this season, as he has seemed panic-prone under pressure and often ducked into sacks rather than getting rid of the ball, and those concerns could be leading to the increase in rushing plays. That, however, is not the best explanation.
If the Patriots can base their offense on their ground game, and use their rushing offense to set up the pass, it is absolutely a good thing, and should make the Patriots the best offense in the league this season. The more rushing proficiency the team has, the more open receivers Brady will have to throw to. With a plethora of passing weapons including Gronkowski, Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd and Julian Edelman, open receivers will mean big yardage and big plays when the Patriots do throw the ball.
The Patriots’ ability to continue running the ball with such success will rely heavily upon the health of their backs, especially Ridley, but if the Patriots continue to run the ball the way they have through the early part of the season, defending the Patriots’ offense will be as tough as it has ever been.