FOXBOROUGH — Three games into the season — all victories — the Patriots remain very much a work in progress, especially on offense, with injuries leaving expected contributors sidelined.
Those accustomed to seeing the pass-happy Patriots march up and down the field by way of an aerial display must feel as if they’ve entered Bizarro World, because it’s on the ground, not through the air, where they’ve been better so far, at least statistically.
The Patriots rank 22d in the NFL in passing yardage; they haven’t been that low for a full season since 2001, when Tom Brady became the starter. They’re 12th in rushing.
Through three games, they’ve had three different players take turns leading the team, both in rushing attempts and rushing yardage. Yet heading into Sunday night’s game in Atlanta, the Patriots are still looking for their first rushing touchdown of the season.
Numbers aside, the team’s ground game is hard to read.
Falcons coach Mike Smith: “They basically have almost the same skill sets, in my mind.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick: “They have, I’d say, a little different skill sets.”
As for their roles on the team?
Patriots running back Brandon Bolden: “I would have to honestly tell you, I have no clue.”
Patriots running back Stevan Ridley: “You know your role as a player.”
Until the Patriots get their full complement of receiving targets back — no word yet whether Rob Gronkowski or Danny Amendola will face the Falcons — they might need the running back-by-committee approach, so their backs can stay fresh, take turns carrying the football, and give defenses more than one back to prepare for.
“Certainly having a good, fresh guy in there that we’re confident in, that can be productive for us, is a good situation,” Belichick said. “I think no matter which guy is in there, we have a lot of confidence.”
They’ve spread the wealth so far. None of the four main running backs — Ridley, Shane Vereen, LeGarrette Blount, and Bolden — have carried more than 36 times on the season, and no Patriot has eclipsed 16 rushes in a game.
Vereen started it, rushing for 101 yards (his first 100-yard game in the NFL) in the season-opening win at Buffalo. But he broke a bone in his hand and landed on injured reserve, which opened the door for Ridley, last year’s top rusher who was benched in the opener after fumbling.
Given a reprieve, Ridley carried 16 times in the Week 2 win over the Jets, gaining a team-high 40 yards.
It was Blount’s turn in Week 3. Facing the Buccaneers, his former team, Blount rushed for 65 yards on 14 attempts. Bolden added 41 yards on just three carries as the Patriots rushed for a season-high 156 yards.
It’s mostly a three-headed monster now, until Vereen comes back. Ridley might have entered the season as the expected feature back, but as Blount and Bolden showed last Sunday, when the Patriots choose to run it, they can do so effectively without handing it off to Ridley (who had 11 carries for 35 yards). Those three players split snap counts almost evenly against the Buccaneers: Ridley was on the field for 26 plays, Bolden 25, and Blount 23.
Ridley seems fine with that.
“I said it at the beginning of the year, we have a very special room,” said Ridley, who has a team-high 121 yards after rushing for 1,263 last year. “Believe it or not, I think people are starting to see it now. I think really as a whole, it doesn’t matter who’s getting it, as long as we’re getting the job done.
“We’re getting it done on the ground and through the air right now. Is it what the New England people are used to? No, not at all, it’s not there yet, but it’s still early in the year. We have a group of guys in that [running backs] room that are willing to get the job done whenever someone needs to step up.”
When Smith looks at game tape of the Patriots, he sees a lot of the same running back, just wearing a different jersey number.
“They’re all in the 220-plus [pound] range, except for Leon Washington, who I consider a change-of-pace back,” Smith said. “When you start talking about Ridley, LeGarrette Blount, and Bolden, they are very similar in terms of their skill set. They are powerful runners.”
With respect to Smith, there are some subtle differences in skill. At 6 feet, 250 pounds, Blount is the biggest back among the three. Ridley has the best speed. Bolden is the best receiver out of the backfield, and added 49 yards on five catches to his 51-yard rushing day last Sunday.
Afer missing the first two games with a knee injury, turning in a 100-yard effort in his season debut couldn’t have worked out any better for Bolden.
“Just to get back out there, it’s not like you’re on a shelf or anything, but when you’re down, you’re down, and it’s terrible watching the game from home,” Bolden said. “So just being out there, shoulder to shoulder with Stevan and LeGarrette, and ready for whatever was coming, was a great feeling.”
Game plans get custom-built for each opponent, but offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels hinted that the multi-back attack would continue. Hey, it seems to be working.
“They all get an opportunity to go in there and rep, and they’re all ready to play,” McDaniels said. “I think anybody that’s earned the right to be out there with their performance and what they’ve done in practice and throughout the course of the season, we usually put them out there and give them an opportunity to make an impact on Sunday.”
The number of times Brady has thrown the ball has decreased every game this season, from 52 pass attempts in the opener to 39 against the Jets and 36 against the Buccaneers.
That might not continue in Atlanta, with the Falcons owning one of the league’s best offenses.
To keep pace, the Patriots might need to throw.
“To be honest, we don’t care how many times we run the ball, as long as we win,” Bolden said. “A win is a win in our book. We could have not run the ball at all, could have passed the entire game, and I guarantee you there’d be a smile on every running back’s face on this team.”