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Ground control

Something is in the air: Patriots shifting to running game

BELICHICK A cold view BELICHICK
A cold view
By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / December 16, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - The Patriots go to Buffalo this week, and the last time they were there, the Great Lakes winds made the goal posts at Ralph Wilson Stadium look like bent paper clips.

Having twisted steel, you can imagine what effect the conditions had on airborne footballs. And if you watched the game, you could see it for yourself.

“To get the ball from here to there,’’ Bill Belichick said, extending his hands about shoulder width, “it was almost impossible. So how many plays like that are you going to call? There weren’t very many passes in that game. The elements can certainly have an effect on your game plan this time of year - we’re playing in New England, we’re playing in Buffalo.

“I think you need to take that into consideration, absolutely.’’

That day in Orchard Park, N.Y., the Patriots ran the ball 47 times, throwing it just eight times, to slug out a season-ending 13-0 win. In today’s NFL, that kind of ratio is unheard of, particularly with a team built around its quarterback, like New England is.

But Belichick’s point is well taken. If the Patriots have to do that, they want to be able to do it well. And over the last few weeks, the spread-happy Patriots have slowly changed their stripes in an effort to build that ability in.

On Sunday, New England ran the ball a season-high 40 times. Their 185 yards rushing were only eclipsed against Tennessee, and even in that blowout at Gillette Stadium in the snow against a quitting team, the Patriots had only 8 more yards on the ground than they did against Carolina.

There are factors to consider. It was raining Sunday. It was cold. Tom Brady was playing through injuries to his ribs and a finger on his throwing hand. Carolina came in ranked 26th in run defense, with a rash of injuries at defensive tackle the main culprit.

Yet, there’s evidence that it was more than just the opponent or the quarterback’s condition or the weather. In certain ways, it looks like a schematic shift.

“I definitely think so, you can see it,’’ said ESPN’s Mark Schlereth, a former Redskins and Broncos offensive lineman who’d just finished studying the Patriots-Panthers game on tape. “They’re trying to run it better. There’s a concerted effort.

“The passing game isn’t what it was. It’s not the same deal as 2007. They’re struggling to find that Jabar Gaffney-type, move-the-chains guy. And Bill Belichick knows better than anyone what you’re trying to accomplish in these situations - you have to figure out a way to take pressure off that defense. ’’

With the arrival of Randy Moss and Wes Welker in 2007, the Patriots became the first team in league history to take more snaps from the shotgun than from under center. Even with Matt Cassel in command, it happened against last year. And through 12 games this season, the Patriots averaged more than 37 shotgun snaps per game, again a majority.

Therein lies how Sunday was different.

The Patriots were in the shotgun for just 25 of 72 snaps. Kevin Faulk, who’s gotten just about all of his snaps out of the shotgun, had five of his 10 carries as an I-formation tailback, with Sammy Morris playing fullback. Laurence Maroney, the guy who gets most of the carries out of the I, toted it 22 times, tied for his highest total of the season.

And so the approach is different. Lining up in three-receiver shotgun sets, and running, is about spreading the defense and creating space. In heavier, tighter offensive sets, it’s different.

“Part of that is establishing it in-game and using it consistently in the game, and it becomes a part of what your identity is,’’ Schlereth said. “There are certain aspects to that, where success breeds success. I definitely think that’s part of it. It’s hard to just say, ‘We’re going to establish it.’ You have to work on it in practice, and you have to work on it in games.’’

Three weeks ago against the Saints, the Patriots came out early with such an approach, but were quickly put in a catch-up situation.

Then, in Miami, the Patriots had fewer than three receivers on the field on 16 of their 54 offensive snaps. Against Carolina, they had fewer than three wideouts on 40 of their 72 snaps.

Why would they make the shift now?

For one thing, their quest to find a third receiver hasn’t provided a clear answer, hampered by injuries to Sam Aiken and Julian Edelman. For another, they’ve struggled mightily in tight spaces, lately on short yardage, and in the red zone all season.

But more than anything else, it may be to reestablish versatility in the offense, and gear the offense to win in January.

“My notes on the game today started with ‘renewed commitment to run the football,’ and I know they’ve had the ball on the ground a couple times, but you can see it,’’ Schlereth said. “It’s like it’s a different attitude there, they’re saying, ‘We’re not as dynamic as we once were, and we have to change some things.’ And to their credit, that’s what’s made them a great team. They’ve done it a bunch of different ways, and won a bunch of different ways.’’

And in December, weather’s not the only thing coming into play.

“Everyone at this point is beat up and injured and hurt, and that’s part of it. Like the weather does, [it] levels the playing field with athleticism,’’ Schlereth said. “This is when you can impose your will, being physical when guys are hurt, accentuate those aches and pains. It’s why, this time of year, if you control the line of scrimmage, you win the majority of those battles.’’

Of course, Belichick won’t concede that his approach is being adjusted. But he would say that executing in the run game is a lot of work, and it’s execution above all else.

So it would figure the more the Patriots do it, and the sooner they settle their offensive line, the better they’ll get.

“The running game is a lot of people -- two, three linemen, a tight end, a running back at the point of attack - all kind of seeing the same thing,’’ Belichick said. “It’s seeing the way the defense reacts on a certain play and then being able to block those players, run the ball and set up the blocks, which is important by the running back to create the maximum opportunity to gain yards. So it’s not one guy; it’s all of them working together in conjunction.’’

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com.

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