by Christopher Price
The New England running backs are charged with much more than simply running the football. They are often the last line of defense between Tom Brady and an onrushing lineman or linebacker.
Through 15 games, the Patriots have allowed just 20 sacks on the season, the fifth-lowest total in the league. And while much of the success can be attributed to New England’s offensive line — three-fifths of which is headed to the Pro Bowl — a good chunk of it is also thanks to the backfield. In an offense that’s attempted more than 100 more passes than rushes, Laurence Maroney, Kevin Faulk, Heath Evans, Kyle Eckel and Sammy Morris have all done their part to keep No. 12 out of harm’s way this season.
But when it comes to blocking, the backs might face their toughest test of the year Saturday night when the Patriots try and finish off a perfect regular season in the Meadowlands. Few teams are able to deliver the sort of consistent pressure on the quarterback than New York can: Led by Osi Umenyiora (13 sacks), Justin Tuck (10 sacks) and Michael Strahan (9 sacks), the Giants lead the league in sacks with 52.
And according to Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick, those sacks don’t necessarily come as the result of blitzes.
“They can rush. Those guys — Tuck and Osi and Strahan — they don’t need any help,” Belichick said. “And no, they don’t need to blitz to get there at all. Definitely not. They have plenty of sacks and plenty of pressure on three and four-man rushes, if that’s what they want to do.”
One of the things that makes the New York pass rush unique is its occasional use of four defensive ends along the line, which can make things difficult for offensive linemen. To try and help, expect a lot of support from the running backs. Fullback Heath Evans has a ton of respect for the New York defense, no matter who the Giants decide roll out there Saturday night.
“They get up field,” Evans said of the Giants’ defense, which sacked Philly quarterback Donovan McNabb 12 times back in Week 4. “They have a great defensive line, they have great linebackers — they get a paycheck too. They’re going to create errors, and so I have to be ready to adjust and do my part when I’m called upon to get this running game going.”
For a running back, pass blocking can be a difficult skill to learn, but Faulk is one of the best. The veteran has mastered the art of blocking — and blitz pickup in particular — with a simple philosophy, one he says he’ll lean on Saturday night against New York.
“By being ready for anything,” said Faulk. “You have to be able to do it no matter what the situation is, no matter who the guy facing you is, no matter who you are. It’s you’re job. If you can’t do it, you won’t play.”
FIVE THINGS TO LOOK FOR THIS WEEK
1. Who plays and for how long? With both teams locked into postseason position, it figures the starters will not go wire-to-wire in this one. Who blinks first and yanks their No. 1 offense or defense? And how quickly does the other team follow suit? If the game is in hand late, odds are that Jared Lorenzen and/or Matt Gutierrez are calling signals by the two-minute warning.
2. Records. This may be the one of the most compelling reason to watch on Saturday night — if the Patriots take care of the record books early, it could mean the starters would be pulled sooner rather later. New England is within striking distance of several major records, including passing touchdowns, receiving touchdowns and total points scored in a season. Our favorite may be total point differential – currently, they’re plus-312. Unless disaster strikes, they’ll finish the season comfortably ahead of the old mark of plus-292, set by the 1942 Chicago Bears
3. Speaking of records, who gets No. 22? The Patriots have had 21 different players score touchdowns for them this season, tying an NFL record. If we’re taking bets on who could be the 22nd, I’ll go with Troy Brown as your best option, with Kelley Washington or a random offensive lineman (Ryan O’Callaghan?) also a distinct possibility as a tight end in a goal-line set.
4. The New England running game. Laurence Maroney and the Patriots were able to bite off big chunks of rushing yards against the Dolphins (196 yards) and Jets (131 yards) the last two weeks, two of the five worst teams in the league at stopping the run. The Giants enter the game in the middle of the pack when it comes to run defense — they allow an average of 101 rushing yards per game, 11th-best on the league. Was the performance of the Patriots’ running game the last two weeks indicative of an upward trend, or were they just feasting against two porous run defenses?
5. New England’s red zone defense. The Patriots’ red zone defense has steadily improved over the last month (see below). After spending most of the season at or near the bottom of the NFL in red zone defense, they are now 22nd in the league. The Giants are in the middle of the pack when it comes to finishing off drives inside the 20, so it should provide New England with a good sense of where it is in that area as the postseason looms.
STAT OF THE WEEK
Zero. In the last three games, the number of trips to the red zone that have resulted in touchdowns for New England’s opponents. (The Dolphins were 0-for-2, the Jets were 0-for-4 and the Steelers were 0-for-3.)
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“Well, you know, being associated with Santa Claus — there’s a lot worse associations to have. I’ll take it. When you’re a kid, sometimes you dream about being on the cover of Sports Illustrated. That’s not actually the one I pictured, but it’s pretty funny. Whatever sells.” – Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick on his appearance on the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated, which has him photoshopped into a Santa suit.
Christopher Price is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the Patriots since 2001 for Boston Metro. He’s served a contributor to ESPN.com, SI.com, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and The Miami Herald. He’s written “The Blueprint: How the New England Patriots Beat the System to Create the Last Great NFL Superpower,” and can be reached at [email protected].