ATLANTA -- From here on out it's going to be difficult to gain much more insight into the Patriots during the preseason, but the early returns are encouraging and suggest that a changing of the guard in the AFC East isn't going to happen without a street fight.
The third preseason game is usually the most meaningful. However, this year the Patriots are playing the rebuilding St. Louis Rams, which is kind of like taking the driving test with Mr. Magoo as your instructor. The final faux football game of the preseason comes on Sept. 2 against the Giants at the New Meadowlands Stadium. This could be an intriguing matchup, except the winner of the final preseason game is always the team that exits the field with the fewest injuries.
So, last night's near full half of varsity action against the Falcons is probably the closest we'll see the Patriots to full-out football against a quality opponent until the season-opener on Sept. 12 against Cincinnati. The Patriots' runaway 28-10 victory in the ATL left a positive impression, not to mention tire tracks all over the Falcons defense via a New England offense that achieved balance by running right at and through the Falcons.
The assumption coming into last night's game was that the Falcons' weakness was pass defense. They were 28th in the league last year and went out and backed up the Brinks truck to bring cornerback Dunta Robinson in from Houston. The Falcons were tied for 10th in run defense.
So, Bill Belichick decided to use Atlanta to send a message. The Jets might be starring in "Hard Knocks" on HBO this summer, but the Patriots plan on delivering them on offense.
It's pretty obvious through two preseason games that Belichick, perhaps stirred to action by the Baltimore beatdown, has his team taking a more physical tack on offense.
If the preseason is preparation for the real thing then the Patriots are getting a running start. Last night, the Patriots ran the ball 30 times for 120 yards. More telling was that in the first half, when it was for most the part starters against starters, the Patriots ran the ball 14 times for 70 yards and dropped back to pass 15 times. It was a similar scenario against the Saints last Thursday, with 17 passes and 15 runs in the first half.
The Patriots' balanced and physical approach, personified by the presence of tight ends Alge Crumpler, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, caught the Falcons off guard. Playing inside the climate-controlled conditions of the Georgia Dome, Atlanta was expecting the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady to air it out.
Instead, the Patriots turned it loose on terra firma, as Fred Taylor ran 11 times for 54 yards and a score in the first half. Taylor and Sammy Morris combined to rush the ball 17 times for 106 yards and two touchdowns in the game.
"They were able to run the ball," said Falcons linebacker Mike Peterson. "You have to tip your hats to them. They're a pass-happy team, and I think that everybody on the defensive side of the ball and everyone in the stands thinks that they're going to throw the ball. When they come out and run it, sometimes, it's a shocker to you. That's not an excuse, but it's just great game-planning and a great scheme."
Lost in all the hype and hoopla over the return of wide receiver Wes Welker, who continued his remarkable recovery from a torn left anterior cruciate ligament, on the Patriots first drive was the fact that the last five plays of the TD march came via the ground. The Patriots handed off to Kevin Faulk on a shotgun delay on third and 7 from their 47, a presumptive passing situation.
Then it was four straight rushes, the last of which was a bruising effort by Fred Taylor, who bounced off the shoulder tackle of Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud on his way to a 28-yard touchdown.
A more stable running game plays into Welker's return. Since arriving on the team in 2007, no NFL receiver has caught more passes than Welker (346), yet his average yards at reception during that time period is 4.5. In the shotgun, spread attack Welker became the de facto running game and the Patriots may have reached a point where they relied on him too much.
Being able to run the ball and utilize more compact two- and three-tight end sets could reduce some wear and tear on Welker and better protect the team's most valuable asset, Brady. When Brady missed all but 15 snaps of the 2008 season with a torn ACL, the Patriots ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing and ran for 2,278 yards, their most since 1985.
Judging by the WWE-esque body blow Brady absorbed on Kroy Biermann's second quarter sack, running the ball a little more isn't such a bad idea, unless you have No. 12 on your fantasy team.
But back when the Patriots were winning Super Bowls, Brady was never a fantasy football darling. As a wise coach once said, "Stats are for losers. The final score is for winners."
The Patriots are not going to abandon the pass. That would be silly with Brady, Welker and Moss. They'll be game-plan specific as they always have been.
"Yeah, I think we've always just kind of went into the game thinking that whatever is going to help us win the game is what we're going to do, whether it's throwing the ball 50 times or running the ball 50 times," said Morris, who had a 20-yard TD run in the third quarter.
But reinstating the run is both a statement by Belichick to his team and a remedy for an offense that at times was predictable in its predilection to passing.
It's always dangerous making predictions based off preseason play, but the Patriots commitment to the run doesn't look like a passing fancy.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.