Curran: Pats' reliance on the run may not be a good thing

Curran: Pats' reliance on the run may not be a good thing
January 12, 2014, 9:00 am
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FOXBORO -- Tom Brady is 41-for-75 passing over the past three games.

He’s never attempted fewer than 75 passes over a three-game stretch. That’s the fewest completions for him over a three-game stretch since 2004 (39, from Weeks 2 through 4).

So if you think you’re seeing something you haven’t seen in a long time, you’re right. You’ve actually never seen it.

(Okay, Brady actually had 40 completions over the final three weeks of the 2010 season. But he only played the first half in the season finale against Miami so I tossed that out. My story, my rules.)

The Patriots, however, aren’t running to make some statement about smashmouth football and toughness. They’re running out of necessity. They can’t really throw it.

They've run 123 times in the past three games, and while you can’t argue with the recent results -- wins at Baltimore, over the Bills and Saturday night against the Colts -- it's a precarious situation.

When the Patriots start throwing, they are -- generally -- in trouble. They don’t have the personnel to have Brady drop back and find guys sprinting free. Unlike, say, last year, the opposing defense is not faced with an avalanche of physical skill it can’t deal with.

Two guys around whom they built their offseason offense are gone. Their Swiss Army knife tight end, Aaron Hernandez, is locked up on a murder charge, and Rob Gronkowski has a blown ACL. Meanwhile, each of their three rookie wideouts keeps breaking.

So what we’ve seen is, the more this team relies on its passing game, the more dire the situation.

The last time the Patriots lost, Brady threw it 55 times against the Dolphins. In their narrow win over Cleveland, he threw it 52 times. In their tight win at Houston, it was 41 times.

The common denominator in those games? The Patriots trailed. They were down 17-7 against Houston, 19-3 against Cleveland and they trailed the entire fourth quarter at Miami when Brady threw the ball 29 times in the final 15 minutes.

Stands to reason somewhat. You're down, you throw. But in getting down in those games, the Patriots weren't having much success doing either. 

The reasons they won those games and nearly pulled it out against Miami? Brady’s command of the offense, his accuracy and his game management. The quickness and catching skills of Julian Edelman, Shane Vereen and Danny Amendola (and Gronk helped out against Houston).

If they could throw, they would. It’s easier on everyone. Brady is the best player on the team. They aren’t paying him $18 million a year to hand off 45 times a game.

But they aren’t paying Bill Belichick to do anything but win. And running the ball, the Patriots have learned, gives them their best chance to do that.

No NFL coach in 2013 is going to sit down in June and say that the best way to get to the Super Bowl is to run it 40 times a game. Running is hard. But Belichick, Josh McDaniels and Brady realize that the only way they will get to the Super Bowl this year is if they run it effectively . . . because they sure can’t just drop back and throw it.

And this is where the intricacies of playcalling, adjustments and efficiency comes in, and the small margins for error will be highlighted. Because being one-dimensional is a bitch. 

First, check these numbers. The Patriots ran the ball 20 times on first-and-10 Saturday night. Seven times they faced second-and-5-or-less and they ran it every time. Eleven times they faced third-and-3-or less. They ran it seven times.

Now look back at some of the game situations Saturday night.

Remember, the Colts started to stiffen up a bit against the run in the mid-second quarter. They got a third-and-2 stop on LeGarrette Blount; then, on the next Patriots drive, they got Shane Vereen for a one-yard loss on a second-down play. A third-and-6 throw to Vereen went incomplete.

After halftime, they stuck Blount for a two-yard gain on first down, leading to another three-and-out.

Indy narrowed the Pats' lead to 21-15. With the Colts emboldened by their success against the run and feeling the Patriots tendencies, McDaniels broke them with a play-action pass that Brady sold hard. He hooked up with Amendola for 53 yards.

After the completion, the Patriots went back to the ground and Stevan Ridley got three yards on first-and-10 from the Colts’ 35. An incompletion brought up third-and-7. If the Patriots didn’t convert, Stephen Gostkowski would be trying a 49-yard field goal with a new holder (Brady), or Gostkowski would be punting.

Brady, under heavy heat from Robert Mathis, was able to buy time and make a clutch completion to Edelman for the first down. It was a massive play in the game.

Almost as big was the one that came three downs later. After Ridley got two on first-and-10, there was another incompletion. On third-and-8, Brady looked for Edelman down the sideline headed for the end zone. It’s a dogfight for Edelman whenever he’s on the outside because most corners are as fast as him in straight-line speed and are a little taller. The ball was overthrown. Edelman got a pass-interference call. Then Ridley had runs of two and three yards for the touchdown and the Patriots made it 29-15.

All wasn’t fixed. The Colts kept challenging the run and sometimes they hit (a stop for no gain on Blount on second-and-three with 3:53 left in the third, followed by an incompletion to Kenbrell Thompkins; a third-and-one stuff of James Develin with 1:24 left in the third).

But one run blitz too many bit Indy. With 13:08 left in the game, Michael Hoomanawanui and Logan Mankins executed beautiful blocks, Blount sidestepped LaRon Landry and went 73 yards for the score.

Then Andrew Luck started throwing it to the wrong franchise and things got silly.

In the end, it’s a 21-point win. But when you look at those little plays -- the completion to Edelman, and then the pass interference when the score was 21-15 and the Colts were starting to bottle up the run; the perfectly blocked 73-yard touchdown run by Blount when the gambling Colts got torched -- you realize how small the margin was.

Whoever the Patriots play next is going to be hell-bent on stopping the run. If they’re smart, they will invite the unthinkable: Ask Brady to beat them. Demand that he make pinpoint throws to small receivers against aggressive defensive backs. If it works, demand that he do it again.

Can Brady do that? Yeah. Ask the Saints, Texans, Browns, and even the Dolphins and Panthers, if Brady can work magic.

But it ain’t gonna be easy. Because, if you’re a defensive coordinator, you should be looking at this Patriots offense and saying, they won’t beat us on the ground. Throw it.