New England Patriots: LeGarrett Blount
CONGRATS TO MY BROTHER LIB! YOU DESERVE IT BIG BRO! THE BEST CORNER IN THE LEAGUE AND ITS TIME YOU GOT PAID LIKE IT!! pic.twitter.com/cem22QtKJ2— LeGarrette Blount (@LG_Blount) March 12, 2014
What a great guy!! Glad I got a chance to not only play with you but, have the chance to compete against you everyday! Congrats my boy, Aqib— Kenbrell Thompkins (@KTdaWinner) March 12, 2014
Wow! Congrats to Libb aka Talib! Great teammate! Wish him well!!— Chandler Jones (@Chan95Jones) March 12, 2014
1. Mankins at LT, Kline at LG. As expected, it was veteran guard Logan Mankins taking over for Nate Solder at left tackle, with rookie guard Josh Kline playing in Mankins' normal spot. Veteran Will Svitek's play time is limited as he's dealing with an ankle issue. Mankins is making his second career start at left tackle.
2. Blount barrels in. LeGarrette Blount earned his third straight start at running back, absorbing the role Stevan Ridley held before his fumbling issues. He paid dividends early, scoring from 1 yard after receiver Julian Edelman drew a pass-interference call in the end zone on a long throw from Tom Brady.
3. Ryan picks Flacco. Rookie Logan Ryan, who has been playing in base defense personnel groupings, registered his fourth pick of the season, grabbing a Joe Flacco pass off of a deflection by Dont'a Hightower. Ryan is tied for the team lead with Aqib Talib and shares the lead with Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso among all rookies.
4. Vereen scores, Pats up 14. The Patriots have had struggles in the red zone without tight end Rob Gronkowski this season, but not so far in this one. In two trips, they've scored twice, with running back Shane Vereen scoring on a 4-yard catch with just less than five minutes to go in the first quarter to give the Patriots a 14-point lead. Danny Amendola had a key 34-yard third-down catch on the drive to put the Patriots in scoring territory.
5. Penalty box. The following Patriots were flagged for penalties in the first quarter: Amendola (illegal shift; declined).
"I thought all our backs ran well," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "Brandon [Bolden] did a good job for us but Stevan [Ridley] and LeGarrette, they all had some good runs, some key runs for us."
And while Blount's production was critical, the biggest spark was provided by the second-year back Bolden, playing for the first time this season and amassing 100 yards of total offense (51 rushing, 49 receiving) in a convincing 23-3 win.
Bolden was the first back to have his number called, as he was on the field to start the game and finished with eight total touches.
He said following the game that he and his fellow running backs don't have a feel for how the Patriots' running back rotation will play out during the course of a game, and, interestingly, said they don't care.
"I can speak for Blount and Ridley. We don't care about that," Bolden said of the mix-and-match. "They call our name, they call our name; if they don't, they don't. But we're going to encourage that guy that does go in to go out there and make the best effort he can. And I think today you got the best effort from all three."
Ridley, who has been the bell-cow back for much of the past two seasons, was limited to just 35 yards on 11 carries. He's struggled out of the gate this season, registering a fumble in Week 1 and gaining just 3.4 yards per carry thus far.
And while a sluggish start for most team's lead back would be a major hindrance to an offense, the Patriots' depth has proved invaluable in the early going.
Bolden said that having three capable running backs stresses a defense.
"That's three different looks a defense has to deal with in the running game and also in the passing game, because all three of us can stay in there for third down, do blitz pick-up and all three of us can take it on first and second down," he said.
The Patriots already have been thinned at the position with third-year back Shane Vereen (wrist) on the injured reserve list with the designation to return (meaning he's out until Week 11), but Sunday was a reaffirmation that the team has power in numbers in the backfield.
Blount was called upon to bleed the clock late in the game, as he had a team-high 10 fourth-quarter carries.
He made the most of his expanded workload, as Blount bumped his season rushing average up from 2.36 to 3.96 yards per carry. His big-bodied frame helped wear down a tired Tampa Bay defense late in the game, likely a sweet escape for Blount facing his old teammates.
Ridley, at least for today, was the least effective of the group, as his touches didn't translate into production.
But in a way, that has defined what makes this Patriots rushing attack effective dating back to last season: the ability to spread the production out from one Sunday to the next.
And on this Sunday it was Bolden leading the way, putting together his most productive day since Week 4 of last season.
Truth be told, Bolden left yards on the field, as he had a 46-yard run -- a career-best -- that could have been even more had he not been caught from behind.
He said with a smile that that was exactly what was going through his head as his path cleared and he ran into open space.
"Don't get caught, but that didn't work for me unfortunately," he added. "But it was great, just to -- like I said, just to get back out and play with everybody."
How the Patriots split reps going forward remains to be seen -- Bolden's big day won't necessarily dictate how he is used a week from now -- but their spread-the-wealth mentality was on display again on Sunday, something this offense will continue to need as it finds its way through the early part of the season.