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Parente: Pats’ Rushing Tandem Breaks Through at Perfect Time

Friday, January 03, 2014

 

Stevan Ridley (Photo: JDN, Flickr)

We’re not exactly working with Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne, “Thunder & Lightning” as the New York Giants referred to them in the early 2000s, but the New England Patriots appear to have stumbled upon the solution to their recent playoff futility.

Running backs LeGarrette Blount, undrafted in 2010 and essentially cast off by the Buccaneers on draft day in April, and Stevan Ridley, a former third-round pick only one season removed from the fourth best rushing performance in franchise history, could be the 1-2 punch conventional football wisdom suggests is necessary to succeed in the playoffs.

Blount rushed for 189 yards and two touchdowns and finished with 334 all-purpose yards as the Patriots beat the Bills, 34-20, in Week 17 to secure the No. 2 seed in the AFC, an encouraging finish to a regular season riddled with injuries and inconsistency from Day 1. The Patriots rarely had all of their weapons on the field at the same time this year, and they won’t have them in the playoffs either now that tight end Rob Gronkowski is out with a knee injury, but Blount’s late-season surge (he also rushed for 76 yards and scored twice in a Week 16 win at Baltimore) might be a preview of what’s to come in the postseason as New England continues to adjust to life without its most important weapon besides Tom Brady.

A highly-effective pair

Even with Ridley fumbling in three consecutive games and getting benched in mid-October, few teams had as good a 1-2 punch as New England did in 2013; the Patriots were one of only two teams with two running backs to finish with 700 or more rushing yards during the regular season. Ridley rushed for a team-high 773 yards and scored seven touchdowns while Blount posted nearly identical numbers with seven touchdowns and 772 yards, alarming symmetry, even if by accident. The other team to accomplish this feat was Buffalo, which boasted the league’s best tandem in C.J. Spiller (201 carries, 927 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Fred Jackson (207-896-9). The Jets and Bengals were on the precipice with Chris Ivory (833) and Bilal Powell (697) combining for 1,530 rushing yards in New York and BenJarvus Green-Ellis (756) and Giovani Bernard (695) rushing for a combined 1,451 yards in Cincinnati.

Not since 2006 when Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney finished with a near identical number of carries and yards (199 and 812, and 175 and 745, respectively) have the Patriots had this much symmetry in their running game. Incidentally, they’re a pedestrian 5-5 in the playoffs since Dillon retired the following season, including two Super Bowl losses and a pair of one-and-dones.

No one will ever confuse Blount or Ridley with Dillon, but you could make the case that this year’s tandem is similar in stature and production to that of the ’06 Dillon and Maroney, or, better yet, the 2003 duo of Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk; Smith rushed for a team-high 642 yards that year on 182 carries, a shade higher than Faulk’s 638 yards on 178 rushes. The team finished 14-2 and won its second Super Bowl in three years.

Does rushing still matter?

Should Blount and Ridley turn into the new Smith and Faulk, will their production be enough to reverse the Patriots’ recent playoff misfortunes?

There are two theories at play regarding success in postseason football, and they coincidentally butt heads on a yearly basis, the first being the idea that you need to run the ball effectively in cold weather to brave the elements, and the other being the widely popular theory that this is now a quarterback league where the rules and regulations heavily favor teams with a prolific passing game, rendering the running game obsolete.

Since the NFL began “reemphasizing” the five-yard no-chuck rule in 2004, which prohibits defensive backs from impeding a receiver’s progress beyond five yards past the line of scrimmage, passing numbers have skyrocketed; the single-season touchdown record, held by Dan Marino for 20 years, has been broken three times in the past nine seasons – twice by Peyton Manning. Teams have trended away from drafting big, physical defenders and have instead utilized smaller, faster defensive backs and linebackers to build their foundation. The transition from physical to finesse has resulted in high-voltage teams such as the 2009 New Orleans Saints (No. 1 offensively, but 20th in overall defense) winning Super Bowls, a seismic shift from the pre-chuck rule days when the Patriots made their living stomping out teams built exclusively for indoor football (see: Super Bowl XXXVI).

When Dillon retired, New England’s offensive philosophy changed dramatically. They acquired Randy Moss and Wes Welker and finished 2007 a perfect 16-0, shattering every offensive record along the way, including a then-league record 589 points, but lost in the Super Bowl to the underdog Giants. Over the next five years, they scored 400 or more points each time – a remarkable feat for a franchise that had never scored 400 or more in back-to-back seasons until ’07 and ’08 – including three consecutive seasons with 500 or more and yet still continued to fail in the postseason during a time in which increased offensive productivity was supposed to lead to more playoff success.

The lesson in all this is despite having a quarterback as good as, if not better than, each of the quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl since the chuck rule was reemphasized, history shows the Patriots have never succeeded solely on the strength of Brady’s golden arm. The decline in defense has played a factor, too, but if you can’t keep teams out of the end zone the only logical solution is to run the ball, control the clock and keep the opposing offense on the sideline.

Balance is the key

What worked for Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers hasn’t worked for Brady. The Patriots are 5-5 in the playoffs when Brady attempts 40 or more passes. Conversely, Brady only attempted 40 or more passes three times in nine games – all wins – during each of New England’s three championship seasons. This is still a passing league, but if the Patriots can display the balance they haven’t show in recent postseasons, it can only make them more dangerous in the long run.

There’s no hard-hitting defense on the other side of the ball this season like, say, last year’s Baltimore Ravens or the upset-minded Giants of ’07, both of whom hit first and never got hit in return. There’s no thunder or lightning. The Patriots will have to provide their own this year. History says it works.

 

Related Slideshow: 13 Biggest Sports Stories in 2013

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