Carrying the Offense
By Karen Guregian
FOXBORO -- The New England Patriots will tell you they still don’t have an identity on offense. Heading into the final week of the regular season, they’re unsure of who they are, and how they can best beat teams when the going gets tough.
Based on Sunday’s performance against the Bills, after being left to reinvent themselves to a degree after losing leading receiver Josh Gordon, the Patriots are going with what’s been their strength at different points this season.
And for the first time in a long time, that strength is not Tom Brady and the passing game.
It’s the running game. It’s Sony Michel, Cordarrelle Patterson, James White and Rex Burkhead. It’s that four-headed monster in the backfield, along with an offensive line, fullback James Develin, and wide receiving corps that all block well for the backs.
They looked like the Seattle Seahawks, running a majority of the time, and just sprinkling in the passing game when necessary during the 24-12 win, which finally clinched the AFC East title.
That was the Patriots’ plan against the Bills. Ground and pound. Granted, they probably didn’t want to throw a ton against the best pass defense in the league. But this was extreme even for them.
Between Brady and Brian Hoyer, who came on with 6:39 to play and the Patriots comfortably ahead, they handed the ball off 45 times not counting kneel downs. When the offensive line is opening gaping holes and dominating the line of scrimmage, and the backs are doing damage when the holes aren’t there, why stop?
The Patriots didn’t. They went ground and pound to the tune of 273 yards, the most rushing yards they’ve had in a game since 2008.
“Obviously, when we can do that, it’s going to make things a lot easier for everyone,” said Brady. “The line really took the physical challenge to heart and we out-gained them by a bunch of yards in the run game. You know, whatever it takes on a week-to-week basis, I think that’s what we’ve got to do.”
Against the Bills, whatever it takes didn’t involve much passing with a Gordon-less offense.
Michel led the way with 116 yards on 18 carries. It marked the rookie’s fourth 100-yard game on the season. He also had a touchdown. The team is unbeaten when he rushes for 100 yards.
“It’s not really about me. I think it’s awesome when you rush for a lot of yards whether it’s me running the ball, James running the ball, Rex running the ball, even (Patterson) running the ball,” said Michel. “As long as we create positive plays, it’s always great for this team and this offense.”
Patterson, meanwhile, was effective in his gadget role with four carries for 66 on a variety of jet sweeps and end arounds. But he injured his knee in the third quarter on a kickoff return and didn’t come back.
The Pats also had White came out of mothballs, with eight carries for 41 yards. He had a terrific 27-yard touchdown run in the mix. He also caught two passes for 13 yards.
Burkhead chipped in another 39 yards on 13 carries.
“You know, this time of year, I think whatever it takes to win, that’s what you’ve got to do,” said Brady. “We did a great job in the run game, and that was great to dominate all the way around.”
As for Brady, he wasn’t much more than a facilitator. Statistically, it was one of his worst games, completing just 13-of-24 passes for 126 yards with two interceptions. He had a 48.3 passer rating. Neither of the interceptions were his fault. Burkhead appeared to run the wrong route on the first. On the second, the ball went through Rob Gronkowski’s hands.
No one seemed too concerned over the lack of production from the passing game, or how Brady didn’t complete anything downfield, or even attempted much downfield. They were just happy to come away with a win any way they could get it.
That meant going with what worked, going to their strength -- running the football.
“December football, January football sometimes you’ve got to tote that thing and we toted it and did good things,” said Edelman, who caught the lone passing touchdown. “Hopefully, we continue that. You know what I mean?”
Belichick said he took Brady out because he “thought that was the right thing to do.” As for his offense, he hopes when the time comes, Brady & Co. will be able to produce.
“I think overall, our passing game will be better, could be better, but we ran the ball well and that offset it,” he said. “Some days it’s the running game, some days it’s the passing game. We’ll see what happens next week, but I have a lot of confidence in our quarterback, our receivers, our offensive line, our protection. When we need to throw, hopefully we’ll be able to throw if we have to. If we need to run it, hopefully we’ll be able to run.”
Right now, it looks like they’ve got one out of two.