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Patriots buck up on third downs

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By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / January 6, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH — The rest of the NFL sees that the Patriots went an unheard-of seven games without committing a turnover — the first team ever to string together more than four games without giving the ball to the opponent.

But the Patriots see that they committed six turnovers against the Dolphins, nine in Buffalo, and 13 against the Packers and Bears.

Come again?

“We look at not converting on third down as a turnover,’’ explained Alge Crumpler. “If we have a three-and-out or miss a third-down conversion, it’s a turnover.’’

That approach helps explain why New England was second in the league in third-down efficiency, converting 95 of 197 chances, 48.2 percent.

That’s a hair less than the league-leading Saints, who converted 48.8 percent of their 217 third-down chances.

When Kevin Faulk was lost for the season with a torn ACL against the Jets in Week 2, Tom Brady thought it would be a long season for the offense. Faulk, according to Brady, is as dependable, consis tent, and clutch a player as the team has had in his time here.

Faulk carved out a niche as a third-down back; he didn’t exactly invent the role, but he certainly refined it and excelled at it. The instances of Faulk coming up with, say, 7 yards to keep a drive going when the Patriots needed 6 are numerous, but he also can throw a block in pass protection if Brady is looking for someone else on a play.

So when Faulk went down, it was incumbent on others in the offense to step up. If numbers are any measure, they have.

New England’s 48.2 conversion percentage is well above the mark the team has posted in recent years. The only time under Brady and Bill Belichick that the team’s third-down efficiency rating has been so close to 50 percent was, not surprisingly, 2007.

(In the Super Bowl-winning 2003 season, the Patriots converted just 37 percent on third down.)

Yesterday, players pointed to a collective effort to keep the chains moving without Faulk.

“When a guy goes down, it’s not about one guy filling that role, it’s about everyone on the team stepping up — we have to step up,’’ said Faulk, who also reported that his rehab is progressing well.

In the only way he can right now, Faulk has stepped up and is still playing a role.

“It’s still with Kevin’s guidance,’’ Crumpler said. “He still contributes with his knowledge of the game. He’s still a captain and he has a great understanding of the teams we’re playing and what we’re trying to do.’’

This week, Brady has given Danny Woodhead a great deal of credit for stepping in, on Monday calling his performance one of the best unexpected things about this season. Woodhead, as fate would have it, was signed the day before Faulk’s injury and in 14 games compiled a very Faulk-like 547 rushing yards and 379 receiving yards with six total touchdowns.

While Woodhead would seem to be an obvious option on third down, a look at the numbers over the last month of the season shows that Brady has turned to several players.

As the Patriots made good on 35 of their 63 opportunities against the Bears, Packers, Bills, and Dolphins, Brady most often passed to Rob Gronkowski or handed off to BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

In nine attempts for Gronkowski, the rookie tight end converted seven times, with three of those going for touchdowns. Green-Ellis ran the ball eight times, with seven successful conversions (a ninth try was a failed pass).

Woodhead, Wes Welker, and Deion Branch were targeted six times each; keep in mind, neither Welker nor Branch played in the season finale against Miami and Woodhead played just the first quarter.

Woodhead rushed four times and caught two passes, though only the rushing plays resulted in first downs. Branch gained the needed yardage on four plays, including his beautiful end-of-half touchdown catch in Chicago, which came on third and 9. Welker, however, converted just one of his six chances.

Brandon Tate, Aaron Hernandez, and Sammy Morris also got the call on several occasions.

“We use a lot of different personnel groups on third down,’’ Belichick said. “Whoever it is, you have to go out there and get [the play] executed, so they’ve all had a part in that.’’

Branch said the coaches have the toughest job in deciding which is the best call in each situation.

“Collectively all the guys have chipped in — Wes, BenJarvus, Sammy, Danny, Aaron, Rob; they’ve all done a great job,’’ Branch said. “The coaches have the hardest job, figuring out who to scheme for. Our job is easy — just try to go out and make plays.’’

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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