By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — For as long as Tom Brady somehow manages to continue to improve, the New England Patriots’ offense will always first and foremost be a passing unit.

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Yet in Brady’s unwanted four-game absence to begin the year, the Patriots developed in a way they’ve really needed to since last season: they became a much more well-rounded offense.

After ranking 30th in rushing yards and 25th in rushing attempts last season, the Patriots through seven weeks of 2016 rank sixth in both rushing yards and rushing attempts. They’re also tied for fourth in rushing touchdowns.

The reasons are numerous. Dante Scarnecchia’s return has proven to be much-needed, as the Patriots’ linemen have noticeably executed their blocks much better than they did last season. Likewise, the return of Nate Solder at left tackle, along with the addition of Joe Thuney at left guard and the solidification of David Andrews as the top center, has led to a more consistent performance across the line than the mix-and-match strategy employed throughout 2015.

But, of course, much of the success comes as a result of the man actually carrying the ball. And on that note, LeGarrette Blount remains one of the most consistent, efficient running backs in all of football.

The buzz on Blount cooled considerably after three weeks in which his yardage totals proved to be insignificant. But even with that three-week stagnation, Sunday’s 127-yard, two-touchdown performance in Pittsburgh puts him near the top of the league in every category the Patriots would like him to be.

Through seven weeks, he ranks sixth in the NFL in rushing yards, maintaining a 4.0 yards per carry average, which ranks fifth among running backs with at least 115 carries. He’s getting a ton of carries (second-most in the NFL), but he’s making the most of those touches.

Realistically though, Blount will never be the league leader in yards or yards per carry. That’s not going to happen, given his style of running and the way he’s used. So it’s better to look at how Blount is used and what he’s doing for the offense in terms of keeping drives alive and ending them with touchdowns.

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And in both areas, he’s among the best. He’s picked up 32 first downs, which is fourth-most in the league, and he’s rushed for eight touchdowns, which is tied for the league lead.

That means that for all of the frustration fans may feel upon seeing Blount plunge into the line for no gain, an impressive 28 percent of his rushes have ended either in the chains moving for a first down or six points going on the board for the Patriots.

He’s already set a career high with the eight touchdowns, and he’s just six first downs away from his best season in that area, too.

Put simply, Blount has done everything the Patriots have needed him to do as well as they could have hoped he would.

“He ran great. … They played some nickel defense against Rob [Gronkowski] and Marty [Bennett], and we were able to get some good runs going with LG. And so that kind of offset some of the sub defense that they were playing there,” Belichick said after Sunday’s win. “LG ran hard, good ball security, good pad level, made some tough yards and made a couple of big play, explosive runs. … He gave us some explosive plays, and we needed that.”

Belichick had more to say about Blount on Tuesday morning: “LeGarrette does everything that we ask him to do. He’s been a very durable player for us other than the end of last year, but he’s out there on a regular basis, takes his reps, is in good condition, so I don’t think it’s any – I can’t think of anything really to add to that other than that’s what it is. He’s always been able to do that. I mean you go back to the Buffalo game a couple of years ago when he was carrying the whole team on his back and returning kickoffs. He’s just a runner with good size, good athletic ability and good ball security. I’m glad we have him, glad we are able to give the ball to him with some volume and he’s been productive really since he’s been here.”

Add in the fact that since his return, Brady has climbed to the top of the NFL’s leaderboards in terms of accuracy, yards per attempt, TDs-to-INTs and passer rating, and the end result is an offense that’s going to be monumentally difficult for opponents to stop, so long as the chief actors remain healthy.

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You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.