FOXBOROUGH — A case can be made that the Patriots’ recent transformation on offense — into a punishing, run-heavy ground team — began with a Stevan Ridley fumble that was returned for a touchdown.
The offensive reinvention hasn’t happened overnight; it’s actually been a slow build the past seven weeks, finally hitting its stride over the last three games, when the Patriots have rushed for 643 yards. That’s the franchise’s highest three-game rushing total since the first three games of the 1983 season, when the Patriots tallied 677.
The star, of course, has been LeGarrette Blount, who followed his career-best 189 rushing yards in the regular-season finale with 166 more, plus four touchdowns, in last Saturday’s playoff win over the Colts.
But the spark, in some weird way, might have been Ridley.
When the third-year back lost his fourth fumble of the season — on Nov. 24 against the Broncos, who happen to be Sunday’s opponent in the AFC Championship game — he was sent to the sideline for the rest of the game, then made inactive the next week at Houston.
That opened the door for Blount, who has charged right through and turned into, quite unexpectedly, the team’s top offensive weapon.
Heading into that Nov. 24 game, Ridley was the featured tailback, with a 201-yard lead on Blount, and 51 more carries. But over the past six games, Blount has seen his attempts and yards steadily increase. He had 12 carries at Houston (when Ridley was benched), 16 at Baltimore (setting a season high to that point), then 24 against both the Bills and Colts.
Counting the playoff game, Blount is now the Patriots’ top rusher, with 938 yards, and is averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Ridley, after a 52-yard game against the Colts, has 825.
“We’ve been getting hot at the right time of the year,” said Blount. “This is the time that we need to get hot, this is the time that we need to stay hot, and with me, Stevan, with [Shane] Vereen and with [Brandon] Bolden, all of us are productive backs.
“We bring something different to the table, and I feel like they’re just trying to get the ball in our hands a little more.”
This is not a Blount-vs.-Ridley story, though. It’s about how the Patriots have elected to adjust their preferred mode of attack on offense, from pass-happy to ground control.
That’s fine with quarterback Tom Brady, who still threw for 4,343 yards, the fifth-highest season total of his career.
“I think it’s just about winning,” said Brady. “If we need to throw for 500 yards, then hopefully we can do that. If we need to throw for 50 yards, I’ll throw for 50 yards, as long as we win.”
Considering that Denver’s Peyton Manning-led offense set the NFL record for points in a season, if the Patriots can establish the run on Sunday, it might keep Manning off the field, which works in the Patriots’ favor. Over the past six games, the Patriots have enjoyed a collective time of possession advantage of nearly 27 minutes, capped by a 10-minute edge against the Colts.
This actually is the second time the Patriots have tweaked their offense this season. With Rob Gronkowski sitting out the first six games, the Patriots were forced to make do without their star tight end. Throwing to three rookie receivers and newcomer Danny Amendola, it took a while, perhaps predictably, for the offense to find its footing.
In the first six games of the season, Brady averaged 246 passing yards. Not surprisingly, when Gronkowski finally came back in Game 7, the passing game began to flourish, and the team’s overall offensive numbers spiked. Average number of total yards without Gronkowski early in the season: 348.8. In the seven games Gronkowski played: 417.7.
But then Gronkowski suffered a season-ending knee injury against Cleveland, leaving the Patriots without their biggest game-changer on offense. Gronkowski’s injury came in the game after Ridley was inactive, so Ridley was still working his way back into the coaching staff’s good graces.
Enter Blount, and witness a renewed focus on the run game.
“I think we have blocked better,” said left guard Logan Mankins. “I think the backs have run better. It is just a combination of everything. It is not just the line, it’s the tight ends, the fullback. On those big, long runs you need receivers blocking. So it is just a total group effort and I think we have all done a better job.”
Having Blount running wild doesn’t hurt, either. The big back has rushed for eight touchdowns the past three games.
“LeGarrette, he’s been great,” said Mankins. “He’s been a great teammate for us, a great locker room guy, fun to be around, and then you see the production he has had. Especially here lately, he’s been a force out there, and nothing gets us happier than to see him play that way. Hopefully he can keep it up.”
All six Patriot touchdowns against the Colts came on the ground, and their 234 rushing yards were topped this season only once, in the regular-season finale (267 against Buffalo).
The emphasis on the ground game is perhaps best evident in the number of rushes compared with Brady’s pass attempts. In each of their past three games, the Patriots have run it more than passed it: 34, 43, and 46 rushes, compared with 26, 24, and 25 pass attempts.
It’s worked. But why the late-season change in approach?
“That’s a good question,” said Vereen, who, counting the playoff game, has the same number of rushes (49) as receptions. “I think maybe it just took a little longer this year than in past seasons. We were focusing on certain things that we weren’t focusing on before.
“Bottom line is, we’re trying to play physical, and when we run the ball well, it’s a good sign. It gives the offense confidence, knowing that if we can run the ball, other things will open up, especially the pass game. It goes hand in hand.”
In the first game against Denver, the Patriots threw the ball 50 times and ran it 31. But they trailed at halftime, 24-0, so the best — maybe only — way to get back into the game was through the air.
That might be the case on Sunday, too. Denver’s defense finished the regular season ranked tied for seventh against the run, and 27th against the pass. The Broncos also will be missing two of their best pass rushers (Von Miller, Derek Wolfe) and their top cornerback (Chris Harris).
The Patriots’ recent reliance on the run game might take a back seat this weekend, if the coaches determine the best way to attack is by air.
“You try to figure out what you do well, and you try to figure out what they don’t do well, and then you try to find a balance,” Brady said. “I think you’ve got to figure out what you do well, and then try to go out there and do it as best you can, [because] this is the game that matters the most.
“This isn’t a big trial-and-error game, this is, ‘Let’s see what we do well, let’s see how consistent we can be at it.’ We’re going to try to take what they give us.”