BALTIMORE — Back in Week 1, when the Patriots were playing the Bills, CBS commentator Dan Dierdorf casually passed along a conversation he had had with Bill Belichick the day before the game. The two discussed running back LeGarrette Blount, whom the Patriots had acquired via trade in the offseason.
Dierdorf indicated that Belichick had said Blount, listed at 6 feet and 250 pounds, "runs like a smaller guy. He's not really a bruising runner."
Suffice to say, Belichick's opinion of Blount certainly has changed this season, especially after the display Blount put on Sunday in the Patriots' 41-7 thrashing of the Ravens.
Blount ran over and through several defenders en route to 76 yards on 16 carries (4.8-yard average) and two touchdowns, increasing his season total to five. And that's nothing new for Blount, who has churned out impressive yards after contact in recent weeks.
"He always runs hard — really hard," Belichick said after the win. "We gave the backs some room to get it started, and when they had a chance to get it rolling, they made some yards on their own."
Blount has only 129 rushes for 583 yards this season, but his carries have increased in recent weeks (47 in his last four games), and in return he is punishing defenders who get in his path.
Entering Sunday's game, Blount was averaging 2.6 yards after contact per run, tied for eighth-best among 54 running backs, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
"Yeah, he's carrying guys on his back," fullback James Develin said. "You see it almost every play — he's bouncing off guys and carrying guys and fighting for extra yards. The guy is incredibly hard to get down."
Blount was one of the main attractions in the postgame media scrum, and the former 1,000-yard back for Tampa Bay said he can feel himself improving.
"As the season has been going on, I've been getting more and more comfortable with the offense," said Blount, who will make his first trip to the playoffs in four NFL seasons. "I haven't been a part of a team that has been this successful. It drives you to do a whole bunch of extra stuff to make sure the success continues."
But Blount didn't do it by himself Sunday, in a game that seemed a lot closer than the scoreboard would indicate. Stevan Ridley, who was deactivated three weeks ago in Houston after losing a fumble in three consecutive games, is slowly working his way back into the team's good graces, and appears to be regaining his confidence.
He had eight carries for 35 yards against Cleveland in his first game back from exile, eight carries for 34 yards last week against Miami, and 15 carries for 54 yards Sunday against the Ravens.
His 3.6-yard average Sunday was nothing to write home about, but he and Blount impressively sealed the win. With the score 20-7 with 6:37 remaining, the Patriots marched 52 yards by only running the ball. Ridley ran five times for 22 yards, while Blount added four rushes for 18 yards and a touchdown (there was also a personal foul called on the Ravens).
Ridley proved to be as elusive with the media after the game as he was with the Ravens' defense, but his teammates are happy to see him get back in his coaches' good graces.
"We have all the confidence in the world in Stevan in there," Develin said. "It's good to see him getting back and getting some good, tough carries."
Overall, the Patriots rushed for 142 yards on 34 carries (4.2-yard average). It was the first time Baltimore had allowed a team to rush for 100 yards in five games, and only the third time this season.
"We had some zone runs we called, we stretched the defense, and [Blount] hit that cut perfect a bunch of times. That was really great to see," said Logan Mankins, who was forced to play left tackle because of an injury to Nate Solder. "Both those guys [Blount and Ridley], we have confidence that they're going to find the right read, and tonight when we got our blocks really good, they found it nice and they were hitting it hard."
The offensive line, playing without Solder and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (broken leg), deserves plenty of credit for Sunday's win as well. The Patriots hadn't cracked 100 rushing yards in their last three games, but may have sent a message to the rest of the AFC.
"No one ever calls our team physical," Mankins said. "But I think if you ask the guys that line up across from us, we've got some physical guys. We're never scared to get after it.
"We want to run it, we want to hit you in pass protection, and that's just the way we play. We're going to cut you. We're going to do whatever it takes."
That's the mentality this offense will need come January. Whether the playoff games are at home, Denver, or Cincinnati, weather could be a factor. And given the team's inconsistencies at wide receiver, and the injury to Rob Gronkowski, it will be more important than usual to establish the running game and ride Blount, Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Brandon Bolden.
Yes, the Patriots can always turn to Tom Brady's golden right arm if need be, but a Super Bowl run might only be possible if they can keep showing balance in the run game.
With 34 rushes and 28 passing plays, it was only the third time this season that the Patriots didn't call more passing plays than runs (though it certainly helped that this time they didn't have to play from behind in the second half).
"It's always great to have the running game," Mankins said. "It's not always there, but I think the most important thing is getting a volume of runs, even if your average isn't that good.
"Tonight, we had a good volume and a good average. It was perfect."