FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — It would be hard to characterize the New England Patriots offense of the recent past as being physical.
With Tom Brady at the controls, the Patriots have shredded opposing defenses through the air.
Brady is one of only two quarterbacks in NFL history (Dan Marino the other) with two seasons of at least 39 touchdown passes and his 5,235 passing yards last year is the second-best all-time. He’s thrown a touchdown pass in 36 consecutive games.
The running game?
Non-existent at times. Inconsistent at best. Only twice in the Bill Belichick-Brady era have the Patriots rushed for over 2,000 yards in a season: 2004, when big bad Corey Dillon gained 1,635 yards (and the Patriots won their third Super Bowl championship), and 2008, when Brady shredded his knee in the first game of the season and was replaced by Matt Cassell.
This year might be different.
While the Patriots still don’t have what anyone would consider a No.1 back, they have some good, hard-running backs who will take pressure off Brady.
Second-year back Steven Ridley and rookie Brandon Bolden put on quite a show last week in the 52-28 victory over Buffalo. Bolden, an undrafted free agent, gained 137 yards with one touchdown, Ridley gained 106 with two touchdowns.
That was the first time in 32 years the Patriots had two backs run for over 100 yards in a game. The last time? Don Calhoun ran for 106 and Vagas Ferguson 100 in a 37-21 win over Baltimore on Nov. 23, 1980. Anyone remember them?
Now, one game does not a season make. But last Sunday’s game may signal a shift in offensive attitude. That’s not to say Brady won’t get his numbers. In throwing for 340 yards last week, he helped the Patriots become only the second team in NFL history to have two backs go over 100 yards rushing, two receivers surpass 100 receiving yards (Wes Welker with 129 and Rob Gronkowski with 104) and the quarterback throw for over 300 yards in the same game.
But the Patriots, with this renewed swagger, might be willing to run the ball more.
“I mean we talk about playing as a physical team,” Brady said. “That’s a big part of what we talk about on a weekly basis. And a lot of that’s the running game. It’s running the ball effectively and stopping the run. If you can’t do that, you’re not going to be a very physical team.
“So controlling the line of scrimmage and the offensive line and the play of the defensive line, and certainly when the running backs are running hard and making yards after contact … that’s what leads to controlling the tempo of the game and obviously scoring more points.”
Brady especially liked the way Ridley and Bolden ran over people. On Bolden’s 7-yard touchdown run, he was met at the 5 by a defensive back, and simply bulled him over.
“That ability to push the pile and so forth in the game and gain yards, that’s where you make those critical yards,” Brady said. “If you’re hit at the 5 and stopped at the 5, then you’re throwing the ball on second down. But it ends up being a touchdown.”
Ridley, who is leading the Patriots with 339 rushing yards (4.6 yards per carry), wasn’t seen in the locker room Wednesday. And Bolden, who is second with 152 yards (6.6 yards per carry), said he couldn’t talk until Friday.
For now, their actions are speaking for them.
John Fox, the head coach of the Denver Broncos, who come into Gillette Stadium on Sunday, certainly noticed. When viewing the film of last weeks’ game, he said the first thing that jumped out at him was “how efficiently they ran the ball last week. Having been a defensive coach most of my career, I understand that people can take away something but they open up something else (by running the ball). I thought that was impressive.”
Belichick said he frankly doesn’t care how the Patriots move the ball: “Whether we throw for 20 or run it for 20, I think when we move the ball and score some points, it invigorates everybody.”
But he knows what a strong, physical running game can mean. He was part of a couple of New York Giants teams that won the Super Bowl with a smashmouth offense.
“I think that’s the way we want to play,” Belichick said. “We want to be a physical team. It’s a contact sport. Being a physical team, being able to win those physical match-ups when they happen, that’s important.”