FOXBOROUGH — One is a sledgehammer with deceptive speed. Another does more of his damage through the air, not the ground. Still another, in limited playing time, became one of just two players this season with a 200-yard game.
As the Patriots reach the concluding, climactic point of yet another NFL season — their playoff run starts Saturday at Gillette Stadium — which running backs get the carries, and what they do with those chances, could go a very long way in determining how much longer the team keeps playing.
With LeGarrette Blount, Jonas Gray, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden, rookie James White, and fullback James Develin — plus Stevan Ridley, before his season was ended by injury — the Patriots have emphasized a committee approach to the run game. They’re the only team to have four running backs with at least 60 regular-season carries: Vereen (96), Ridley (94), Gray (89), and Blount (60).
It’s the first time in team history that the Patriots didn’t have at least one running back with at least 100 carries in the regular season, although Blount, who spent the first 11 weeks with the Steelers, combined for 125 with both teams.
Counting size, speed, style, strengths, vision, experience, and determination, it’s quite a diverse collection of running backs.
“Just as diverse as the personalities,” Vereen said after a practice last week. “Everyone brings something different to the table. We all have a tool box full of abilities and skills that we were blessed with, and we’re able to put them on display here.”
With tight end Rob Gronkowski healthy for a full season, the Patriots’ passing attack, like it has for many years under quarterback Tom Brady, has outpaced and outgained the run game. You’d have to go back to 2005 to find a season in which the Patriots ran for fewer yards than the 1,727 they gained in 2014. But with their presumed feature back (Ridley) only playing in six games, and Blount appearing in just five, it’s prompted a little on-the-fly approach.
Different weeks have showcased different backs. One game it can be Gray rushing for 201 yards on 37 carries against the Colts. The next game, the Patriots ran it just 20 times, and Gray didn’t even play. They won both games.
“We’ve got a lot of guys we feel comfortable with handing the ball to or throwing it to that have helped us win,” said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. “All those guys that we’ve handed the ball to have done good things for us this season and have really been productive at different times when they’ve had their chances. There are a lot of things that go into when they’re in the game, what matchups we’re trying to get, how we feel about a certain personnel grouping against the defense we’re facing.”
How important will the Patriots run game be? More important than one might think. In the Patriots’ last eight playoff losses — a stretch that includes two Super Bowls, and began with a 27-13 loss at Denver on Jan. 14, 2006 — they’ve been outgained on the ground in every game.
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In those eight playoff losses, the Patriots threw it almost twice as often as they ran it: 198 carries, 371 pass attempts. Balance has been an oft-stated goal from McDaniels.
What do those rushing totals and imbalance say?
“It says we obviously weren’t able to have the ball enough, weren’t able to control it, weren’t able to run it the way we wanted to,” said Vereen, who has more receiving yards this season (447 on 52 receptions) than rushing yards (391 on 96 attempts). “In terms of running the ball, you want to be able to run the ball well, control the ball, and win the line of scrimmage, first and foremost.”
It doesn’t hurt having a revolving door of backs coming into and out of the game. Blount and Gray are power runners, while Vereen can be used in the passing game, often lining up wide and taking advantage when a bigger, slower linebacker draws the coverage.
This time last year is when Blount was carrying the load, even with Ridley healthy. Blount closed the regular season with a 189-yard rushing game, then ran for 166 in the playoff opener. Since rejoining the Patriots, Blount has rushed for 281 yards on those 60 carries, and scored three touchdowns. If the Patriots intend to run successfully in the playoffs, Blount might be counted on heavily.
“I don’t even care, as long as we win. That’s the plan,” Blount said. “If it’s running the ball, if it’s throwing the ball, as long as we win, I’m good with it.”
The Patriots finished 18th in the league in rushing offense, averaging 107.9 yards per game. But in their four losses (Miami, Kansas City, Green Bay, Buffalo), the Patriots were held to 91 yards per game.
“Those guys do a great job of preparing each week. I feel like they’re really ready to go,” McDaniels said. “They know that their role could expand during the game if we’re having more success, and give them a lot of credit for preparing as hard as they do. They’re all ready to perform when their number is called.”
Chances are the Patriots still will rely heavily on the passing game to move the ball and score, assuming Gronkowski and receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell remain healthy (Edelman has missed the last two games with a concussion). But the better the Patriots run the ball as a complementary piece, the better their chances of advancing.
“They told us from the start, ‘You never know when your number’s going to be called, just be ready when it is.’ I think the running back group will take that very personally and take some pride in that,” Vereen said. “Because this offense, we do so much, you’re never too far out of the game, never too far removed from what’s going on.
“I’m hoping we can get as much out of it as we need to keep moving forward. Playoffs are crazy: It’s fun, it’s intense, the stakes are higher. You just want to get out of games with a win, so hopefully the running game can be whatever it needs to be in order for us to do that.”