- Chris Forsberg, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Just three years have passed since BenJarvus Green-Ellis enjoyed the first carry of his NFL career in Week 6 of the 2008 campaign. The Patriots utilized five other running backs that season, but only one remains on an active NFL roster: Kevin Faulk.
The Patriots cut 34-year-old Sammy Morris before the start of the 2011 season; LaMont Jordan was out of the league at age 31 by 2009; Heath Evans retired at age 32 before the 2011 campaign and is now an NFL Network analyst; and 26-year-old Laurence Maroney, a former first-round pick, is still looking for work.
Yes, at age 35, and now in his 13th NFL season, it's a marvel that Faulk is still on the Patriots' roster. But after sitting out the final 16 games of the 2010 season with an ACL injury, Faulk is working his way back off the reserve/physically unable to perform list with the goal of showing there's more football left in him.
"It's always fun to see an old face back out there," the 26-year-old Green-Ellis said when asked about Faulk's return to practice last Tuesday. The Patriots have up to two more weeks to either put Faulk on the 53-man active roster or move him to season-ending injured reserve.
"Most of the guys I came in with aren't here any more. Obviously, we can't replace his veteran leadership, and some of the things he's learned playing 13 years. It's always good to get those little pointers and things like that. It's fun to have Kevin back out there," Green-Ellis added.
The lingering question is how exactly does Faulk fit in with New England this season. If three's company and four's a crowd, what does that make the possibility of the Patriots' carrying five running backs on the active roster moving forward? In a word: unlikely.
It's up to Faulk to prove he shouldn't be the odd man out in a group that includes Green-Ellis, Stevan Ridley, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen. These practice sessions are likely key to showing the Patriots coaching staff that, even at an advanced age and coming off a tough injury to rebound from, Faulk can still be more than an intangibles guy.
After all, sentimentality is checked at the door in Foxborough. Three Super Bowl rings and the label of the longest-tenured Patriots player only gets you so far.
"My little niche has been the leadership, the veteran presence," said Faulk. "Answering the little questions that need to be answered -- the small question that could be big for a guy."
But Faulk knows he doesn't necessarily need a helmet to be that sort of leader. He's got to prove he can still be New England's best back in pass protection. He has to show he can still sneak out into the flat and make key catches in the passing game. He has to show he still can wiggle his way to big gains on late-down draws.
Faulk says those decisions are ultimately out of his hands, but if he can prove those things on the practice field, he could be back on the active roster as early as Sunday's game in Pittsburgh.
"That's the difficult part, I'm working day-to-day trying to get back on the field," Faulk said. "Whatever [coach] Bill [Belichick] decides, that's what Bill decides. I'm on the football field again, so I'm happy with that."
It's hard to imagine the Patriots won't find a way to keep Faulk on the field. He's paid a bit of dues by starting the season on the PUP list and has helped mentor the two rookie backs that will likely allow New England to phase him out down the road. If the decision is who can help this team more over the final months of the season, Faulk or someone such as rookie Shane Vereen, it's likely going to go in the veteran's favor.
Faulk simply has to get back into his routine, something he's been throttled out of ever since the ACL injury in Week 2 last season. Faulk hadn't been able to practice for more than a year, sitting out a total of 20 regular-season games -- this after missing just 23 games over the first 11 years of his career.
"As athletes, it doesn't matter what type, you are a routine guy," Faulk said. "When you kind of get off that routine, that's when you tend to really not feel comfortable in what you're doing."
Has his confidence suffered?
"Once you get out of your routine, it's not for you to get frustrated. You try to get back on, try to get the job done the best way you can," he said.
With or without Faulk, the Patriots' running game will be the key Sunday against the Steelers. Pittsburgh is somewhat susceptible to the run (at least more so than through the air, where they rank as the league's top defense in passing yards allowed). The Steelers rank 12th in the league in rushing yards allowed (107.1 per game) and 19th in yards per carry (4.5).
Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien is quick to point out the Steelers haven't allowed an individual 100-yard game this season, though it's worth noting that, in their two losses, the Steelers were gashed for a combined 350 yards on the ground (180 versus Houston; 170 versus Baltimore).
The Patriots are unlikely to produce that first individual 100-yard game. As has been the case for much of Faulk's tenure, it's the committee approach in New England. Individual statistics really don't matter.
In fact, maybe Green-Ellis summed it up best when asked to reflect on the Patriots' rushing attack through six games. He said: "We're 5-1, that's the only body of work that really matters -- W's and L's."
The Patriots have enjoyed a lot of W's since Faulk arrived. He's hoping to help them to a few more before he fades away like the other running backs who have disappeared from the NFL since Green-Ellis' rookie season.
Asked if he did anything fun during the five off days the Patriots enjoyed during last week's bye, maybe escape to the Bahamas like quarterback Tom Brady did, Faulk laughed and noted, "I'm a little too old for that."
But contributing on the field for the Patriots? He's hoping he's never too old for that.
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
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