The Patriots have reinvented themselves as a run-first team over the past few weeks, a strategy that has paid big dividends thanks to a dominant offensive line and breakout performances from running back LeGarrette Blount.
New England ran the ball on 62.5 percent of its plays in its divisional playoff victory against the Colts on Saturday night, its highest percentage in any game since 2008. It continued a trend of the Patriots leaning more heavily on their running game down the stretch this season.
The Patriots’ reliance on the run is new, but its success when rushing between the tackles isn't. In their first 14 games this season, the Patriots ranked sixth in the NFL on inside rushes (4.8 yards per carry). New England ranks second with 5.8 yards per interior rush since Week 16 while gaining a league-high 200.3 yards per game on such carries over that span.
Most of the increased workload has gone to Blount, who tripled his interior rushes per game in recent weeks.
Blount averaged 6.1 inside rushes per game in the first 14 games of the season, but 18.3 in New England's past three games. Blount's 130 yards per game inside the tackles since Week 16 are more than all but three other teams over that span.
Blount says a big reason behind the increased workload (64 carries in the past three games) and production (431 rushing yards, eight touchdowns) is a change in his running style:
“Bill [Belichick] told me -- he said the only thing I wasn’t doing right was running with a lower pad level,” Blount said Saturday. “So, I changed that and I started breaking more tackles, started getting a lot of extra yardage after contact.”
Over his past three games, only Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch has averaged more yards after contact per game than Blount.
It will be interesting to see whether the run-first approach that has worked so well recently will carry over to Sunday’s AFC Championship Game in Denver.
The Broncos allowed the NFL’s second-fewest yards per rush on carries up the middle (3.68 yards) during the regular season and have not allowed a rushing touchdown on a carry between the tackles since Week 14 against the Titans.
When the Patriots played the Broncos in the regular season, they had 116 yards rushing on 31 attempts. Blount had just two carries in that Nov. 24 game and lost a fumble.
“We’re coming out and we’re coming up to hit [Blount],” Broncos safety Mike Adams said Monday. “We’ve got to make sure we control the paths more, because we knew he was a good runner [in the first meeting] and he’s still a good runner now.
“Obviously, he’s emerged because he had a couple of big runs. But other than that, it doesn’t change our mentality, because we knew he was a good runner. They’ve got a couple of good backs -- [Stevan] Ridley and the other guy. They had some fumbling problems, but other than that, they’re all good backs.”