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Friday, August 20, 2010
Patriots achieve offensive balance

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

ATLANTA -- Sometimes you just have to be able to knock 'em in the mouth. This is football, after all.

The New England Patriots' offense has effectively done so through the first two preseason games, proving that "Hard Knocks" isn't reserved solely for their bombastic AFC East rival New York Jets.

While the Patriots have picked up chunk yardage with big strikes in the passing game, most encouraging for Bill Belichick's boys has been their ability to churn it out on the ground as well. Check out these statistics through two preseason games: 65 rushes, 62 quarterback dropbacks.

Sammy Morris
Sammy Morris ran 20 yards for a touchdown on Thursday against the Falcons.

Beautiful balance, indeed.

Thursday's ground brigade in a 28-10 win against the Atlanta Falcons was highlighted by running backs Fred Taylor (28-yard touchdown run) and Sammy Morris (20-yard touchdown run). The last time the team had two touchdown runs of 20 yards or more in a regular-season game was December of 2008 against the Oakland Raiders.

Those who watched the 2009 Patriots shouldn't be surprised at that. While the club averaged 4.1 yards per carry last season, and had games in which the running attack asserted itself, it hardly seemed like there was a genuine commitment to that aspect of the offense. The Patriots were a pass-first team.

If two preseason games are a barometer of change for the 2010 season, the needle looks like it's moving back toward the middle -- and offensive linemen such as Matt Light, who said one goal was to become more physical this year, must be pleased. Ask any offensive lineman or tight end, such as Alge Crumpler, and they'll say there is something powerful about establishing physical dominance up front in the running game.

"It's always good to get an opportunity to go out there and run the football," said Crumpler, who delivered one of the key blocks on Taylor's 28-yard touchdown run, a perfectly executed play-call against a blitz that was also expertly blocked.

Long touchdown runs like Taylor's are full-team, attitude-type, identity-shaping runs because they require blocking help from not only linemen and tight ends but also wide receivers. Randy Moss, Brandon Tate and Sam Aiken all delivered big blocks to help open daylight on Thursday's touchdown runs. There is something that can be galvanizing about seeing pass-catchers contribute in that way.

This is part of the attitude that the Patriots are in the early stages of creating for themselves.

Part of the reason for the better balance is the team's big change at tight end -- with Crumpler and rookies Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez -- which has opened up new possibilities for quarterbacks coach and playcaller Bill O'Brien.

The Patriots have run 86 of their 132 offensive plays (including those with penalties) this preseason with two or more tight ends on the field. Normally the team is more likely to put three receivers and one tight end on the field; this reflects how O'Brien is integrating the tight ends into the mix. Both games began with the Patriots putting all three tight ends on the field together, and no offensive skill-position players have been on the field more than Hernandez and Gronkowski this preseason.

"I think it's safe to say that's why the coaches brought those guys in here," Taylor said of the top three tight ends. "I think, all in all, they're all embracing their roles and doing a pretty good job at it."

The early results have been encouraging for the Patriots. In his 11 years as coach, Belichick has often repeated the same mantra:

There will be times when we have to throw the ball when the defense knows it, and times we have to run it when they know it, and hopefully we'll be good enough in both areas to convert.

The passing game hasn't often been the issue, as the team has generally been lethal in that area. Yet sometimes it seemed that came at the cost of developing a physical run-based attitude.

But through the two games this preseason, a nice balance has been struck. The passing game looks as sharp as ever. The running game, going the "Hard Knocks" route, looks revived.

"We want to continue to grind it out and grow as a unit," Taylor said. "I have to be honest, it's a start and it looks pretty good so far."

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.