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August 10. 2013 6:54PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Running game set an aggressive tone


New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley (22) walks off the field with retired running back Kevin Faulk after losing to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC championship game at Gillette Stadium in January. (Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports)

Before going overboard about the impressive performance of the Patriots' running game on Friday night in Philadelphia, take a moment to remember last year.

Back then, as you may recall, much of the talk after the preseason opener was about Shane Vereen. He carried the ball 11 times for 64 yards that night, compared to 40 yards on eight touches for Stevan Ridley. The next week they split the carries, 10 apiece. Then by Week 3, when the ramping up really begins, Ridley had 16 hauls for 87 yards. Vereen touched the ball twice, losing yards on both carries. Then it was Week 10 before he had his 23rd carry of the regular season.

So it's probably not a great idea to rush out and buy a LaGarrette Blount jersey after he ran the ball 11 times for 101 yards and two touchdowns against the Eagles. Likewise, don't assume that after rushing for 248 yards and racking up an average of eight yards per attempt that the Patriots' running game will be what drives their offense this season.

But it's hard not to be encouraged.

If there are questions about how the Patriots will move the ball if, as expected, they're forced to open the season without their top five receivers from last season, the balance afforded by a formidable ground game would certainly be a good place to start. And Friday night suggested a commitment and a capability of establishing that, right from the very start.

Ridley opened the action by going 62 yards on the game's first play - getting to the second-level almost untouched in a testament to the work of his offensive line - though equally impressive was what happened on the subsequent five snaps.

After busting the big one, New England kept the ball on the ground, Blount going for 8, 1 and 3, then Ridley covering 5 yards before punching it into the end zone from a yard out. And if ever there was a way to start the season with a statement about execution, and being physical, and dictating play, this might've been it.

Without any worry about injury to Tom Brady or who the star quarterback would throw the ball to, the Patriots had brought in their big personnel packages, had lined up helmet-on-helmet, and had bullied their way 80 yards in six plays and barely three minutes.

Just like that, the tempo was set. And football was back.

"Incredible," Brady said. "Hand the ball off as many times as we did on the first drive and get the ball in the end zone - it was great. The offensive line took a lot of pride in that. We're challenged to be a tough football team, so to really do that and run the ball like we did was great."

They continued to meet that challenge throughout the night. Blount scored on a 51-yard burst in the second quarter, then from just outside the goal line in the third. He looked intriguing, and like more than just a short-yardage bulldozer in his first action since being acquired in a trade from Tampa Bay - and Tim Tebow looked good, too, running the ball out of a read-option set against the Eagle reserves, and gaining 31 yards on his four attempts.

Again, all the individual details mean little as of this morning, as the Patriots collectively turn their attention to Friday night's scrimmage with the Buccaneers. And as good as they were running the ball in Philadelphia, the nature of today's NFL says it'll ultimately be more important that Brady strikes a simpatico with his receivers and the Pats remain respectable (if not among the elite) in the passing game.

But in terms of setting a culture and an attitude, it makes for a great way to begin.

"We had big runs, we had short yardage runs where we needed to get the ball, we ran in on the goal line," Brady said. "That establishes the identity of the team how well you run, how well you stop the run, and all those guys did a great job. They are big strong powerful runners that want the ball in their hands, and when they get in the rhythm, they make a bunch of plays."

- - - - - -
VEREEN'S biggest contribution came in the passing game, where he furthered the notion that he'll take the role of the departed Danny Woodhead by making a nice catch along the sideline for a touchdown from Brady.

But maybe the most noteworthy performance came from undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins. He wound up with four catches for 23 yards, none longer than seven, though he was on the field and effectively executing timing patterns with Brady - which would seem to bode well for his chances of making the team, and maybe earning a role.Aaron Dobson, the second-round receiver, also looked decent. He finished with two catches for a team-high 35 yards.

- - - - - -
DEFENSIVELY, veteran lineman Tommy Kelly's initial contributions were just as Pats fans would've wanted as he combined with Chandler Jones to force a second-quarter fumble, and generally looked capable of being the big body the Patriots would like to play inside next to Vince Wilfork.

In the secondary, Aqib Talib was toasted by DeSean Jackson for a touchdown on a well-thrown ball Michael Vick, but rookie Logan Ryan appeared to take a step in the right direction as he gets his feet wet at cornerback. He had a team-high six tackles and two passes defended.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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