FOXBOROUGH — In the second quarter of last Sunday’s win over Denver, with the Patriots in full hyper-speed, no-huddle mode, they faced a third and 1 from their 45-yard line.
Tom Brady handed the ball to rookie Brandon Bolden, who went straight to the hole on the right side between Rob Gronkowski and Deion Branch.
Bolden got the yard for a first down, plus some: He was taken down after a 24-yard gain, putting New England well into Denver territory.
The play kept alive what became a 16-play drive that ended in a field goal, giving the Patriots a 17-7 lead at halftime.
In a league that is widely becoming pass-first and on a team that has become known as a throwing team in recent years, running the ball effectively seems like a nouveau notion in New England.
But thanks to a re-emphasis on the ground game and dynamic talent at the position, the Patriots have been running the ball with great results through the first five games and that has made an already-successful offense even more difficult for opposing defenses.
“Now we can be a little more balanced, and I think teams prepare for us a little bit differently now,” said Branch. “Back in the past, it was always, ‘We’ve got to defend the pass game.’ Now they have to defend both. So that’s always a plus — teams have to play us a little different.
“Some teams come in the game and play us with nickel, and once you start doing that, you have all the smaller guys on the field, you want to run the ball. And I think we should. We’ve been doing a great job with it so far.”
As they prepare for Sunday’s game in Seattle, the Patriots have the top-ranked offense in the NFL in terms of total yardage and scoring. Being near the top of both categories has been familiar for this team since 2007, when Brady went from trying to move the chains with Reche Caldwell and Doug Gabriel to doing so with Wes Welker and Randy Moss.
But unlike the last five years, it is being done with a far heavier dose of rushing plays.
Through five games, the Patriots have actually rushed the ball more than they have passed. Of their 388 offensive plays, 191 were rushes and 185 passes (the other 12 plays were sacks). And they are averaging 33 points per outing.
In four of the last five seasons, the Patriots were quite a bit over 50 percent when it came to the pass/run split. The one exception was 2008, when Brady went out in the first game and Matt Cassel was thrust into the starting role. That year, they still passed slightly more than they rushed, 48.8 percent to 46.8 percent (with sacks accounting for 4.4 percent, as Cassel was brought down 47 times in ’08).
Last year, though, was when New England hit the high-water mark: 56.6 percent of its offensive plays were passes. For comparison’s sake, Green Bay and New Orleans, the teams that finished ahead of the Patriots in points per game, passed on 55.9 percent and 59.2 percent of their offensive snaps, respectively.
The steady but unspectacular BenJarvus Green-Ellis averaged just 3.7 yards per carry for the Patriots last year, and second-leading rusher Stevan Ridley, then a rookie, didn’t get a chance consistently until late in the season.
This year, Ridley won the starting job out of training camp, and will keep it as long as his fumble against the Broncos remains just a hiccup. Bolden has gained trust quickly, and has produced when on the field.
Throw in some Danny Woodhead, and you have the makings of a very good ground game, with players who can get 4 or 5 yards but also bigger gains; the Patriots have 17 rushes of 10-plus yards to this point. They had just 29 all of last season.
“I think we’re doing a good job of changing field position handing the ball off,” Brady said. “It’s different when you hand it off and gain 4 yards or 6 yards, which is a good run, but it’s different when you hand off and you gain 25. You go, ‘That was easy, let’s do that again.’
“If you can run it and force them to tackle you and force them to get their run fixed and worry about run support and, bam, you play-action pass them, that’s what makes good football.
“We just have to continue to do it. It’s only been five weeks and we’re certainly doing great in the running game but it really means nothing if we don’t do it this week.”
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said something similar earlier this week about more offensive balance, noting that balance is good only if it’s working, and New England has been able to use it more because it has been in positive situations in regard to the scoreboard.
“The last so many weeks — and really all year — we’ve been in the game or been ahead in the game and have had the ability to maintain our run-pass balance, if you will,” McDaniels said. “We go into each week trying to figure out the best way to play the game . . . and so far I think that being balanced has been part of that formula.”
Being able to hand off the ball takes pressure off both Brady and the offensive line, Branch pointed out, but Brady discounted any idea that there’s any less pressure for him.
“I don’t think there’s been pressure off me in a long time,” he said, smiling. “I think that’s part of the position and probably all NFL quarterbacks feel that.
“But when your number is called, you have to be able to execute. Believe me, it’s nice to be able to hand it off and run the ball in. We’ve been balanced this year on offense. We just have to continue to keep it going.”
He is right, of course. The Patriots won’t continue to run if they aren’t running effectively. But for all of the reasons that it is a positive to do so, here’s maybe another one: The last time they finished the season with a run-pass ratio slanted toward the run was in 2004, the last year they won the Super Bowl.