Patriots will go rushing into things

Emphasis tonight expected to be on the ground attack

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / August 20, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - The Patriots offense is one of the most unpredictable in the NFL, but even an attack as game-plan-specific as New England’s wants to have one static trait - the ability to run the football.

It doesn’t matter if your offense has Tom Brady or Brady Quinn at quarterback, running the football is a necessary, often vital, component.

In the Patriots’ preseason opener last Thursday against the Philadelphia Eagles, the focus was on Brady’s comeback and the timing in the passing game. Lost in the afterglow of Brady’s return to the field was the lack of synch and productivity in the Patriots’ rushing attack.

In the first half, when the Patriots used their regulars on offense, the Patriots rushed 10 times for 24 yards. They finished the game with 29 carries for 95 yards (an average of 3.3 yards per carry). Following the 27-25 win over the Eagles, Belichick said he thought the running game wasn’t consistent.

When the Patriots take the field at Gillette Stadium tonight against the Cincinnati Bengals, New England will try to get its running game up and running.

On paper, running the ball shouldn’t be a problem. The Patriots have a deep stable of backs with Laurence Maroney, Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and they return all five starters from an offensive line that paved the way for 2,278 rushing yards last season, the team’s most since 1985 and the sixth-highest total in team history.

“I know whoever starts and whoever comes in or comes out, we’re always going to have a good back in the game no matter what,’’ said Maroney, who had six carries for 14 yards against the Eagles.

However, much as Brady has to get on the same page with his receivers to create continuity in the passing game, the running game requires synergy between the running backs and the line. The preseason is when that chemistry can be established.

“I think that is a great chance for the backs to get comfortable with you and you to get comfortable with the backs and sort of know where they’re going to be and have them know where you’re going to be,’’ said center Dan Koppen. “There is timing in everything we do.’’

The ground game could get a boost tonight from Taylor, who sat out last week’s game. The Patriots will likely be without Morris, the team’s leading rusher against the Eagles with 12 carries for 45 yards. He has not practiced since that game because of an undisclosed injury.

From his seat on the sidelines last Thursday, Taylor, the NFL’s 16th all-time leading rusher with 11,271 yards, saw no reason to panic. Getting into a groove on the ground just takes time.

“It’s early,’’ said Taylor. “There are always some things we can get better at, of course, up front in the line as well as the backs being very decisive in our cuts and things of that nature. I thought we did OK. We started out OK, but there is always room to grow.’’

The Bengals could provide a good test because one of the primary goals for Cincinnati this year is to play better run defense. The Bengals ranked 21st in the NFL last year, allowing 120.1 yards per game, but in a 17-7 preseason loss to New Orleans last week, they surrendered only 86 yards on 30 carries.

The Patriots averaged 4.4 yards per carry last season, fifth-best in team history and their highest since 1983.

But it’s not always all about yards per carry. Being able to convert short-yardage situations on the ground - getting 2 yards on third and 2 - is the mark of a good ground game.

Belichick is obsessive about the execution of that type of situational football.

That’s why following the Eagles game, when asked about his rushing attack, he pointed out a situation in the third quarter where the Patriots faced a third and 2 and ran the ball twice but gained only a yard, turning the ball over on downs.

“We definitely need to work on that aspect of our game,’’ said Belichick. “But you know we ran the ball better last year. It was the best the Patriots have run it in 20 years or however long it has been.

“I’d like to get off to a good start on that. I think we had our moments, but it wasn’t as consistent as it needs to be. We have to keep working on that.’’

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