FOXBOROUGH — Back in high school, during games in which he’d rush for 300 or even 400 yards, there were times when LeGarrette Blount would see a defender simply step aside and get out of his way. There was zero interest in trying to stop a hard-charging, 250-pound freight train.
Blount found those games boring. He prefers to work for his yards, even if it means running over or dragging would-be tacklers.
The days of the matador defense are over for Blount, who is in his fourth season in the NFL, and first with the Patriots. But you can still catch him bouncing off defenders. If they’re stubborn, he’ll even carry them a few yards, free of charge.
“I’ve always been a physical guy, I’ve always been one of the bigger guys,” Blount said on Thursday, after the Patriots practiced inside Gillette Stadium in advance of Sunday’s game at Baltimore. “I’m not going to let somebody just smack me. I’m not going to shy away from contact, and a lot of times I usually break the tackle.”
He’s certainly been given the opportunity to do that recently. Blount has been the Patriots’ featured back the past three games. It hasn’t meant workhorse-type numbers — 44 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries against the Texans, 42 yards on eight attempts against Cleveland, and 47 yards on 11 tries last Sunday at Miami — but among the four-horse stable at tailback, Blount is the one that’s been getting the most calls to saddle up.
Stevan Ridley still leads the Patriots with 645 rushing yards. Blount is second, with 507, but in seven of the team’s 14 games, he’s been the leading rusher, including each of the past three. It does coincide with Ridley’s reduced role, assumed because of his fumbling problems. Blount, though, has turned into a dependable ground option, using his size and deceptive speed to his advantage.
That’s the way it’s been since his youth football days, when the coaches made the smart decision of putting Blount in the backfield and the ball in his hands.
“They saw I was good with the ball,” Blount said. “So that’s where I played.”
Blount was a four-year starter in high school, then spent two years at Oregon after a stop in junior college. He was not drafted — he threw a punch at a player after a game with Boise State, which shortened his senior season — signed originally with the Titans, then joined the Buccaneers right before the 2010 season. Three years later, he was dealt to the Patriots in exchange for Jeff Demps (who played in two games before being placed on injured reserve) and a seventh-round pick from April’s draft.
Joining a group that already included Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Brandon Bolden, Blount had no clue what his niche in the offense would be. But the coaches knew he’d be giving them a rusher’s skill set that was vastly different from the other three.
“When you watch him run, you don’t think he’s 250 pounds. But he has, I would say, rare quickness and athleticism for that size, as well as power,” coach Bill Belichick said. “We’ve seen him run through plenty of tackles, but he’s also nifty and quick enough in the open field that he certainly doesn’t look like a fullback running the ball.”
Blount, who goes 6 feet, 250 pounds, said he’s always been bigger than the fullbacks that have been on his teams, and assumed that was still the case. James Develin, according to the team’s media guide, is 6-3, 255.
What makes Blount stand out is his willingness — or intent, it frequently appears — to make contact with defenders as he charges ahead with the ball.
“He invites it. LeGarrette is a big, hard runner, and when you look at the film you can tell: Guys bounce off him, and to be honest with you, I wouldn’t want to tackle 250 [pounds] running at me full speed, either,” said Bolden. “We’ll run to daylight at any chance, but if you’re in the way of that daylight, we’re not going to shy away from it.”
Belichick compared Blount’s size and running style with former Chiefs star Christian Okoye and current Giants tailback Brandon Jacobs, but said he thinks Blount has better quickness than either of those two.
Asked for a comparison, Blount comes up with a different big back.
“[Former Steeler Jerome] Bettis is one of those big guys that had really nice feet. I feel like I can describe myself more like a Bettis type, but more athletic than him, too,” Blount said. “As for big backs then and now, I have their physical stature, that size and build, but I feel like I’m more athletic, more agile, than they were. I feel like I have my own unique running style.”
Now he’s showing it. Blount won’t match the 1,000-yard season he had as a rookie with Tampa Bay in 2010, but he’s already proven himself in plenty of surprising ways this season: His 47-yard touchdown against the Falcons remains the longest rush of the season for the Patriots, he’s had a team-high 15 kickoff returns for a respectable 23.3-yard average, and he leads the team with a 19.0-yard receiving average. OK, that’s come on only two catches. Still, you get the idea.
“LeGarrette has done a good job with his opportunities. We’ve been rolling multiple backs certainly into the game the last so many weeks here, and he’s definitely been productive with his opportunities to carry the ball,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “He definitely has a style of running the ball that is downhill. [He’s] a bigger guy and certainly it’s always tougher to bring those guys down because of their size.”
Yes, that physical, muscular, intimidating size. No longer will Blount take the handoff and see tacklers turtle in fear. He’s OK with that, though. Remember, games such as those bored him. Now, the contact means he’s on the field, making plays.
“I just came here with the mind-set to work hard and try my best to get on the football field, however I may get on. It’s worked out in my favor,” Blount said. “I feel like I’ve gotten into a little bit of a rhythm. I’m happy that I’m getting a chance to play more.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.