Commentary

Yes, Patriots can run the ball -- quite well, in fact

Thanks to their aerial game, the Patriots are setting all kinds of records. But don't overlook their running game, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Originally Published: December 28, 2007
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Laurence MaroneyThomas E. Witte/Getty ImagesPatriots running back Laurence Maroney (No. 39 above) is averaging more yards per carry (4.8) than the NFL's leading rusher, San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson (4.7).
Given the superiority of the New England Patriots' passing attack, with quarterback Tom Brady and his arsenal of explosive receivers poised to smash a bevy of records, it is sometimes easy to forget the Patriots can run the ball, too.

INSIDE TIP SHEET
Here's some of what you will find in this week's Tip Sheet notes. Insider

• Losman trade bait?
• Parcells' housecleaning
• Dallas defection rumors
• Deep rookie LB class
• Tough calls for Jets
• For whom will Bell toil?
• Schottenheimer return to KC?
• Dunn is not done
• Changes in store for Bengals
• More Morris instead of Alexander?
• Strategic roster moves
• The list
• Stat of the Week
• Stat of the weak
• The Last Word

During the past two weeks, second-year tailback Laurence Maroney has offered to the absent-minded and the skeptical exactly 260 yard-by-yard reminders that when Brady grows arm-weary, the Pats can still wear out their opponents by running through them instead of past them.

"Whatever we need to do, we're going to do it -- that's the beauty of this offense," Maroney said after rushing for a career-best 156 yards on just 14 carries, in Sunday's 28-7 walkthrough over the outmanned Miami Dolphins. "I know people have been saying, 'Can they run the ball? Why don't they run the ball more?' And stuff like, 'What's going to happen when the weather turns bad and they have to run? Can they just turn the running game on?'

"Well, I think we've answered the concerns. No more of those [silly] questions, OK?"

Truth be told, while the New England rushing attack might not have merited the kind of exclamation point that's attached to the aerial component of the league's top-rated offense, neither should it have had such a question mark affixed to it. Some observers have suggested the ground game is little more than a footnote for coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, but that isn't quite accurate.

Nor is it fair to contend that the Patriots' rushing game stirred from its somnambulism only when Maroney -- finally healthy after battling a strained groin earlier this season -- rumbled for 104 yards in a Dec. 16 victory over the New York Jets before speeding to his career-best outing a week later.

No, the Patriots don't have a runner ranked among the league's top 20 in rushing yards. And, yes, they still do things like calling 33 consecutive pass plays, as was the case during their win over Pittsburgh three weeks ago, when New England ran just nine rushing plays. And yes, the success of the past two weeks have come against two of the league's worst run defenses.

On paper, the Pats' running game seems nothing more than a diversion. The Pats have called pass plays on 56.7 of their 981 offensive snaps. And rushing yards represent only 29.2 percent of their league-best 6,190 yards for the season.

But that doesn't mean the Patriots can't or won't run it. The players insist a solid ground attack remains important to the team's approach -- and that with the weather apt to turn blustery at Gillette Stadium for the playoffs, it will become even more significant.

[+] EnlargeSammy Morris
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesSammy Morris had back-to-back 100-yard games this season before getting injured ...

"We're more resourceful at running than we get credit for being," said left guard Logan Mankins, perhaps the NFL's best player at his position, and an in-line mauler. "It's not like we just started running it the last few weeks. I mean, go and look at the numbers. We've closed out a lot of games by [running the ball]."

Indeed, the sum totals are more impressive than the individual accomplishments.

Entering Saturday's regular-season finale against the Giants, the Patriots rate 10th in the NFL in rushing offense, at 120.3 yards per game. Their 4.2-yard average is also 10th best. New England has just four rushes of 20 yards or more, but three of its longest runs have been for 40-plus yards. And it might surprise some people to know that, even with the heavy emphasis on the pass, the Pats rank ninth in the NFL in rushing attempts, third in first downs on the ground, and sixth in touchdowns by land.

[+] EnlargeKevin Faulk
Tim Umphrey/Getty Images... while Kevin Faulk had a team-high 47 yards in the win at Dallas ...

The Pats have had more pass plays than run snaps in 11 of their 15 outings, but they've still managed to run the ball 30 times or more in seven contests. And indicative of the resourcefulness of which Mankins spoke is that four different backs -- Maroney, the injured Sammy Morris, reliable third-down specialist Kevin Faulk and the utilitarian Heath Evans -- have led New England in rushing yards in at least one game this season.

"It's a team where everyone kind of understands his role," said Evans, who doubles as a single-set tailback and lead-blocking fullback. "They like guys here who can do a lot of different things. But the thing is, when they call on you, they expect you to do them. Guys accept that here. It's not an offense, at least right now, where somebody is going to get 25 carries every week. So what? It's working pretty good the way it is."

The loss of Morris to a season-ending chest injury in the Oct. 14 win at Dallas was a tough one. A terrific free-agent addition by vice president of personnel Scott Pioli, the versatile Morris posted consecutive 100-yard games while filling in for the injured Maroney.

[+] EnlargeHeath Evans
Rick Stewart/Getty Images... and Heath Evans led the club with 56 yards against the Bills.

When Morris went down, the agent for veteran Corey Dillon lobbied publicly -- some would say shamelessly -- for the Patriots to re-sign his client, who had requested and was granted his release in the spring. But the Patriots refused to take the bait and never phoned Dillon, their leading rusher in each of the past three seasons.

Instead, they did what Belichick and Pioli always seem to do. They plugged in guys and moved forward.

"They believe in their roster," Faulk said. "They feel like the team will somehow [ratchet] it up a notch."

If a feature back did exist in New England, it would be Maroney, the team's first-round selection in 2006 who has rushed for 789 yards on 166 attempts this season. Had Maroney not missed three games due to injury, he'd probably be over 1.000 yards by now. Still, he's more thoroughbred than workhorse, as evidenced by his 59-yard TD sprint and a 51-yard run against the Dolphins.

"He can turn a short run into a long one pretty fast," Belichick said. "He's got great speed."

The beauty of the New England offense, as it is constructed this season, is that it provides ample opportunities for such big plays.

On approximately three-quarters of its offensive snaps, New England utilizes a three- or four-wide receiver shotgun set. Even when there is a tight end in the lineup, particularly when it is Benjamin Watson -- a big guy who can get vertical -- he is flexed or in the slot. In most sets, the Patriots uses just one back, so the blocking splits are naturally wider and the defense, obviously, is spread out.

Consequently, New England backs generally hit nothing but air for the first couple of yards. And when plays are exceptionally well-blocked, as were both of Maroney's long jaunts on Sunday night, a runner can get quickly into the secondary. The ironic part is that both runs came off an I-formation set in which Maroney shared the backfield with Evans.

As the Patriots continue their pursuit of perfection on Saturday night and through the playoffs, they will need more such running plays. Maybe not as perfectly blocked, but plays that are productive and provide some dimension to the high-flying offense that on Saturday night will likely break the NFL single-season scoring record.

"Even we can't throw it every play," wide receiver Jabar Gaffney said. "We know that. Teams that think we're just about the pass and that we're totally one-dimensional, well, I think our backs will have something to say about that. They aren't just going to be forgotten men, not by a long shot."

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.