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Patriots’ running game has the legs

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By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / September 16, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - Patriots running back Danny Woodhead visited his hometown of North Platte, Neb., during the offseason not expecting to be treated any differently.

“Home is still home,’’ Woodhead said. “More people may have noticed me, but it wasn’t something I was thinking about. I still have my privacy. Maybe more people noticed, but I think they still see me as the same person I was, and hopefully always see me that way.’’

Woodhead is looking to be the same type of running back this season as he was last, when he and fellow surprise BenJarvus Green-Ellis combined for 1,555 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns.

While the Patriots wait to feature rookies Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, Green-Ellis and Woodhead handled the bulk of the work in last Monday’s season opener against the Dolphins. Vereen was inactive in Week 1 and Ridley was active but did not play.

Green-Ellis had seven carries for 34 yards and a touchdown, and Woodhead added 69 yards on 14 carries in the 38-24 victory that included a passing clinic by Tom Brady.

Last season, the duo provided the Patriots with consistent contributions. Green-Ellis became the Patriots’ first 1,000-yard rusher since 2004, and Woodhead collected 926 total yards with six touchdowns.

The Patriots cut veteran Sammy Morris, and veteran Kevin Faulk is on the reserve/physically unable to perform list, leaving Green-Ellis (fourth season) and Woodhead (third) as the most experienced running backs.

Green-Ellis got the starting nod for the first time in his career last season when the Patriots traded Laurence Maroney to Denver. He may have gone undrafted out of Mississippi, but he proved to be reliable.

“He’s a great runner, and I think he’s shown that he can see the field well,’’ Woodhead said. “He can catch the ball and do a lot of things. It’s not like he does only one thing really well, he does a lot of things well.’’

When the Patriots signed Woodhead last season, it appeared to be to gain an advantage on the rival Jets, who had just cut him. But the Patriots had plans for Woodhead, and when Faulk tore his anterior cruciate ligament against the Jets, the Patriots looked to Woodhead to convert on key downs.

“Danny comes in and does a good job of doing whatever they ask,’’ Green-Ellis said. “I would say he has a lot of good attributes that he brings to the game. He’s a matchup problem for a lot of people.’’

Coach Bill Belichick said Green-Ellis and Woodhead complement each other.

“When they have the opportunity to carry the ball or catch the ball, they’ve done pretty well with it. As have our other backs, both this year and I’d say, through the years,’’ said Belichick. “That’s really what it’s about, just being productive with the opportunities. Sometimes they come in different quantities, could be catches, could be runs.

“I think both guys run hard, they both can make yards for us. They’ve both shown the ability to run inside, outside, catch the ball, pick up the blitz. Whoever is in the game we have confidence in.’’

Green-Ellis said the Chargers, Sunday’s opponents in the home opener, present challenges with their size up front. Last season, San Diego allowed an average of 93.8 rushing yards a game, which ranked fourth in the NFL.

“They’re a good defensive unit, and we’ll have our hands full and try to do the best we can,’’ Green-Ellis said. “They have a good front seven and have some guys they’ve added in the secondary.’’

After having a season to get adjusted to the Patriots’ system, Woodhead said this season he can focus more on getting better, though he still hopes to fly under the radar, on and off the field.

“I didn’t get the playbook just thrown at me for the first time this year,’’ Woodhead said. “But I don’t think it’s changed my work ethic. No matter what, I want to be able to know more than I knew before. That’s just something I put on myself to work as hard as I can.’’

Monique Walker can be reached at mwalker@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @monwalker.

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