The last 10-plus years, fans can always count on the Patriots having a dynamic passing attack. There have been a few bumps and bruises along the way with the amount of turnover the team has seen at wide receiver, but New England can always count on Tom Brady.
This year, the Patriots can also count on their running attack.
Through the first seven weeks of 2016, New England is ranked sixth in the league with 122.7 rushing yards per game. The Patriots also have scored nine rushing touchdowns, which is tied for fourth most.
This is particularly impressive considering the team’s best running back, Dion Lewis, hasn’t played. Veteran LeGarrette Blount was late to re-sign, but he’s been an important cog in the offense up in Foxboro and is giving Bill Belichick’s team some of the best offensive balance it has seen in a while.
Blount was a major part of the Patriots’ offense while Brady served his suspension in the first four weeks. In those games, Blount averaged 88 rushing yards on 22 attempts per game and scored four touchdowns. When Brady returned, though, everyone anticipated the Patriots returning to their short, quick passing attack, which would devalue the importance Blount.
That hasn’t been the case. In three games with Brady, Blount has averaged over 18 carries per week, indicating that New England is dedicated to offensive balance.
On the road against a respectable Pittsburgh run defense, Blount gained 127 yards, averaged 5.29 yards per attempt and scored twice.
The 29-year-old back has reached the end zone in six of the first seven games, and he leads the NFL with eight rushing touchdowns.
The first four weeks obviously raises the average, but the Patriots have the third-most rushing attempts in the league, and they have a “game in hand” (to use a hockey term) on the Tennessee Titans, who lead the NFL in rushes.
New England isn’t extremely efficient with its running attack, as they are ranked just 22nd with 4.0 yards per carry, but the dedication to the ground game is obvious and will only help Brady in the long run.
A lack of running game and no offensive balance was ultimately what led to the Patriots’ demise last season. Lewis and Blount both went down with injuries before the stretch run, so New England had little choice but to air it out over 40 times per week. The Patriots chose a conservative game plan each of their final two regular season games and lost to the Jets and Dolphins.
During the playoffs, New England was able to get by Kansas City at home, but Denver’s pass rush on the road was too much. Brady dropped back more than 60 times in the AFC Championship, and the team only had 14 designed runs with a running back. With no threat of a running game, Von Miller and company teed off on a weak Patriots offensive line.
That won’t happen this season if Blount stays healthy and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels continues to make him a major part of the game plan.
In typical New England fashion, what was once the squad’s Achilles Heel is now the team’s strength. The Patriots are a scary team for a lot of reasons; offensive balance is just the latest one.