FOXBOROUGH — It was the type of drive Logan Mankins loves.
On the Patriots’ second possession last Sunday against Atlanta, they started with a pass and ended with a pass, but the 10 plays in between, covering 50 yards, were all runs, split among Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount, and Brandon Bolden.
Mankins, like nearly all offensive linemen, prefers run blocking to pass blocking. It is when they get to be the aggressors, trying to impose their will.
“We were excited,” Mankins said last week. “We wanted to run the ball every play of the game.”
With good reason. Though the Falcons went into the game with one of the best run defenses in the league, the Patriots racked up 132 rushing yards, averaging a robust 5.2 yards per carry among the running backs (Tom Brady was credited with five carries for minus-2 yards).
“When you’re run blocking, you get to attack the defense, you get to go attack the defensive line, you get to go forward,” Patriots center Ryan Wendell said.
“When you’re pass blocking, they’re attacking you. So even though we say pass blocking isn’t passive, I think every offensive lineman would like to just run it downhill and gut it out, and try to get that 3 yards and a cloud of dust.”
That early running success meant the Patriots were even more effective with play-action later in the game, allowing Brady to complete 15 of 22 passes for 220 yards in the second half as New England built its lead.
“You never know how the game’s going to be called, but if you do hear [a run play called], you take pride in it and you want to do it,” right tackle Sebastian Vollmer said. “Every offensive lineman likes to run the ball. Whenever it works, it opens up play-action and other things, so it’s definitely a good thing.
“But it has to work. If you get stuffed, you’ll probably go away from it.”
They’ll need more of the same running success Sunday in Cincinnati, against a Bengals defensive line that ranks among the most talented in the league.
All-Pro tackle Geno Atkins is the biggest star, but Domata Peko, Michael Johnson (who is listed as questionable), and Carlos Dunlap are all effective, and front a defense that hasn’t allowed a 300-yard passer since the third game of 2012.
“I think we just try to do our best to understand who we’re playing against,” Wendell said. “It all goes downhill from [Bengals defensive coordinator Mike] Zimmer; he does a great job, he puts his guys in a great position to play well and excel at what they do.
“Atkins is a very good player, but he shows up a lot because of what Dunlap does, what Johnson does, what Peko does, all those guys, and when you can’t work off of those guys, then you have all those linebackers sitting behind them. [Vontaze] Burfict’s great, [Rey] Maualuga coming in there plugs up the middle, then you add [James] Harrison to that mix, it’s a really tough front. Those guys, they play in the role that Zimmer puts them in, and they do a really good job of it.”
Wendell also respects the way Cincinnati plays, noting that there isn’t a lot of trickery or scheming involved.
“These guys are tough guys,” he said. “They line up and they play. It’s just good, solid football played by good football players and executed well.”
The Patriots line should be up for the challenge. The entire offense was dreadful against the Jets in Week 2, but against the Bills, Buccaneers, and Falcons, New England averaged nearly 150 yards rushing, on 4.7 yards per carry, with Brady sacked six times over those three games.
The starters on the offensive line — Nate Solder, Mankins, Wendell, Dan Connolly, and Vollmer — have been teammates since Solder was drafted in 2011, and have been starting together since the start of last season, when Connolly moved to right guard and Wendell got his opportunity at center.
That familiarity helps, though there is always a measure of starting over as they enter a new season. Under the exacting eye of line coach Dante Scarnecchia, the players acknowledge the need for improvement.
“It hasn’t been perfect, but it never is,” Mankins said. “I think we’ve gotten better every game, and we’re doing some things that we like. There’s a few things that we’re not thrilled about, but I think we’re on the right track.”
Said Wendell, “Every year is a new season and although we’ve played next to each other, we are still getting back in the groove of things and we’re still trying to improve every week. I think we have improved in some areas every week and I think there’s still a lot of things we need to improve on, so we just keep practicing and trying to do better.”
“Individually there’s little things that we don’t do right, if it’s footwork, hand placement, whatever it is, you try to work on it and then you fix that and it’s the next project you have to work on and it continues throughout the season,” Vollmer said.
As tough as Scarnecchia can be on his charges, he also is good at praising them when they perform well. Wendell noted that Scarnecchia looks at the big picture — how all five worked on each play — so when they’ve done well as a group, everyone gets the thumbs-up.
Wendell, who played more snaps than any player in the NFL last season when his special teams plays were factored in, had a very good first year as a full-time starter, four years after he was signed as an undrafted rookie out of Fresno State.
But as is typical of many offensive linemen, he credits his success as much to the fact that he plays between Mankins and Connolly as to his own talent and preparation. Similarly, he made sure to note that it takes 11 players on offense for a run play to be successful, not just the line.
“It takes all 11 guys to run the ball that way, and it takes Tom putting us in the right runs, the offensive line executing, the running back running well, and those guys on the outside coming in and digging out safeties that are trying to put their nose in there,” Wendell said. “So when you get those things, it feels great to be able to overpower someone, and when they know you’re going to run it, and be able to put it down their throat.”
Every yard will be earned against the Bengals, though certainly Mankins won’t mind if there’s the same even split — 31 pass attempts, 31 rushing attempts — in Cincinnati as there was in Atlanta.