By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Many folks outside of New England have been scratching their head and wondering how in the world Bill Belichick has managed to go 3-0 with Tom Brady suspended, with Jimmy Garoppolo making his first NFL start before getting injured, and with rookie Jacoby Brissett filling in seamlessly.
A lot of it has to do with defense and coaching, no doubt. But a lot of it has to do with LeGarrette Blount.
With Week 3 of the NFL season officially in the books, the Patriots’ lead back (whose job security was questioned throughout the summer) currently stands as the NFL’s lead back. Blount’s 298 yards ranks him No. 1 in all of the NFL.
His four rushing touchdowns also put him in a tie for first in that category.
Perhaps most telling is this: Across the league, among all 32 teams, there’s not one running back who’s been handed the ball more than LeGarrette Blount. With 75 carries, he’s been the league’s most relied-upon running back, ahead of Houston’s Lamar Miller (74), Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliot (71), the Jets’ Matt Forte (67), and Pittsburgh’s DeAngelo Williams (66).
The combination of leading the league in rushing attempts and rushing yards doesn’t lead to an extraordinary conclusion. It’s much more impressive, for example, that Cleveland’s Isaiah Crowell has just 24 fewer yards than Blount, and he’s racked up those 274 yards on just 45 carries.
But, as it relates to the Patriots — and as it relates to the Patriots specifically in the four-week absence of Tom Brady — the workload placed upon Blount has been immense for the team through weeks. And, provided Josh McDaniels and Belichick continue to lean on Blount once Brady returns, it could pay dividends through the whole season and beyond.
Last year, the Patriots ranked 30th in rushing yards and 25th in rushing attempts. On the flip side, they ranked fifth in passing attempts and fifth in passing yards. Now, Tom Brady is a remarkable quarterback and arguably the best of all time, but asking him to carry an entire offense as he ages closer to 40 seemed like a suspect strategy at the time and proved to be too one-sided when it came to January. Denver’s pass rushers teed off and had a field day. The Patriots’ season ended.
And to be clear, the Patriots (who currently rank first in rushing attempts and 31st in pass attempts) don’t need to become a run-first team. They just need some semblance of balance. The absence of Brady (and, coincidentally, the loss of Garoppolo) gave them a golden opportunity to work on it.
For an example, look to 2014, when they ranked 13th in rushing attempts and 18th in rushing yards, compared to being tied for seventh in pass attempts and ninth in passing yards. That’s an ideal spot to be in both areas, and it proved to be just enough to get through Baltimore, Indianapolis and Seattle in the postseason.
Realistically, there will be times when the Patriots are tempted to let Brady air it out with 40-plus attempts on a given Sunday. And sometimes it will work to their benefit. Yet there will remain a need to be able to run the ball in certain situations.
LeGarrette Blount will assuredly not be leading the league in rushing come December, but his work (as well as the work of O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia, which has been apparent) early in the season should provide enough confidence to believe he’s plenty capable of an increased workload when needed.
Developing a more well-rounded offense should have been one of the chief objectives of the Patriots coaching staff during Brady’s absence. As the team enters the fourth quarter of that span, it appears to be mission accomplished.