All the talk in New England to open the new season has been about the team's new-look passing attack and some of the struggles the unit's youthful transition has led to.
Lost in all that aerial game analysis and breaking down of Tom Brady's body language has been a couple pretty impressive performances to open the season by the Patriots running game.
That was certainly the case in Sunday's win over the Buccaneers, as Josh McDaniels' offense churned out 156 yards on 33 attempts as a team for a 4.7-yard average, including 103 yards in the second half. It was also the second time in three games that the offense has topped 150 yards on the ground as a team.
And that production came with a trio of New England's backs getting the job done against a Tampa Bay front that led the NFL in run defense a year ago.
The biggest boon for the backfield was the return to health of Brandon Bolden. The second-year back missed the first two weeks with a knee injury. Last we saw him he had a fumble in the Detroit game and some were questioning whether the former rookie free agent would even make the 53-man roster.
Sunday he earned the start in a four-receiver set against the Bucs and went on to have a rather versatile and productive day. Bolden notched just three carries, but totaled 51 yards on the ground thanks mostly to a 46-yarder on New England's second snap of the second half.
Bolden was even more consistently productive in the passing game. He hauled in five catches for 49 yards, including a 17-yard long. He made the most of his chances on screens. He even lined up wide a couple times, with Brady actually throwing in his direction out there on one snap despite the fact that the back was covered by all-world cornerback Darrelle Revis.
While Bolden was serving as the change of pace/passing back – a role he filled capably with Shane Vereen in the midst of his stay on injured reserve after breaking a bone in his wrist on opening day – both Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount were finding some production in more traditional roles.
Blount led the Patriots with 14 attempts and 65 yards (4.6 avg.) , including his own 23-yard effort. Ridley picked up 35 yards on his 11 attempts, finding varying degrees of success in a number first-down runs.
Things were so fluid in the backfield and the committee approach to the position's contributions that there were a couple different times that the three backs rotated through on a three-play series of snaps as McDaniels kept the Tampa Bay defense on its toes in terms of personnel usage.
"That's three different looks that the defense has to deal with, in the running game," an all-smiles Bolden said after his season debut. "And also in the passing game because all three of us can stay in there on third down and do blitz pickup. All three can take it on first and second down."
Bolden also said the three close-knit backs don't worry about which guy is going to get the chances in which situations. It's a group effort, with full group support.
"We don't even care about that. I can speak for Blount and Ridley about this. We don't care about that," Bolden said. "They call our name, they call our name. If they don't, they don't. But we're going to encourage that guy who does go in and make the best effort he can. I think [Sunday] you got the best from all three."
Maybe the best part of the running game's production was when Blount served as the closer as New England looked to run out the clock on the victory in the fourth quarter. Blount carried the ball eight times for 56 yards – including six straight rushes – as New England drove from its own 29 to the Bucs 6 while eating 4:41 seconds off the clock in the process. It was a true example of what team's call four-minute offense.
Tampa took over on downs at its own 7 with 2:57 to play down 23-3 on the scoreboard and essentially the game was over.
"We had it wrapped up there. It was nice to chew up some clock there at the end, keep the defense off the field and let us take care of a lot of it," Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins said.
The way Mankins saw it that was just the final act of an impressive overall performance by the running backs working behind him.
"Those guys ran great," Mankins said. "That's a tough team to run against. They make reads hard for the backs and those guys did a great job of finding the gaps in there and getting downhill. You can't run sideline to sideline on this team. They're too fast, they'll run you down. They found the gaps and I think the line did a good job staying on guys and cutting guys down. It was a good team effort on the running game." It was a group effort from the backfield that displayed three different guys with three different skill sets. Ridley is the returning 1,200-yard rusher. Blount is the clock-killing bull. And Bolden might just be the versatile athlete the team needs on offense in both the run and the pass until Vereen can return in November. It was a very impressive committee contribution in the backfield that was a big part of a nice victory. One clearly worthy of a second-look in this edition of Take Two-sday.