A year ago there was little question who would be carrying the ball for New England. In his first season with the Patriots, former Bengal Corey Dillon recorded a career-high 345 carries for a franchise-record 1,635 yards. Dillon gave the Super Bowl champs a balance on offense that they hadn't had in recent years, even through two previous Super Bowl runs.
This offseason, Dillon signed a lucrative contract extension, and it appeared the pieces were in place for that balanced offense to take even more positive, productive steps in 2005. Dillon, Tom Brady, Deion Branch and a slew of other offensive weapons had Patriots fans looking forward to a potentially explosive offense.
But the best laid plans ... and New England's running game has been a huge question mark through the first 12 weeks. Dillon has been injured for more than a month, and even when healthy, he's averaging less than 4 yards a carry.
Kevin Faulk (broken foot) and Patrick Pass (hamstring), New England's third-down back and fullback, respectively, to start the season, have also missed time to injury. In their absences, the team added Amos Zereoue, Michael Cloud and Heath Evans. Surprisingly, Evans, a 'tweener back who played the first four weeks as Miami's fullback, has been the most productive of all of the team's backs in recent weeks. In three weeks with New England, Evans has 39 carries for 169 yards (4.3 average), to go along with eight receptions for 64 yards.
Pass, when not limited by the hamstring injury, has 42 carries for 205 yards (4.8 average) and 20 catches for 221 yards.
The production from the two has given the Patriots better numbers on the ground without Dillon, who hopes to play this week against the Jets. With Faulk, upgraded on the injury report from out to doubtful to questionable in consecutive weeks, also ready for a return to the lineup, the mix of players could leave the Patriots with a far more productive stable of runners to turn to down the stretch.
While Evans came back to reality a bit with just six carries for 11 yards in last Sunday's loss in Kansas City, include Dillon among those who've been impressed by what Evans has been able to accomplish over the last few weeks in the most significant action of his five-year career. Dillon hopes his return to the mix, along with Evans, Faulk, Pass and Cloud, could be just what the doctor ordered for New England's ground struggles.
"He's doing a good job," Dillon said of Evans' play. "Hopefully, when I get back, we'll have a one-two-three-four-five punch going on, and we can do some things."
But while he's enjoying watching Evans' powerful running style, Dillon is still focused on returning to his role as New England's workhorse and giving the team a boost of production.
"I don't like it, man," Dillon said of having to watch from the sideline over the last few weeks. "I don't like it at all. Never have. Like I said, my favorite (saying) is, 'Stuff happens.' All I can do with it is try to get healthy and come back for the stretch (run). That's what I am looking at."
And with Faulk on his way back, Pass working to full health and Evans now established as at least a contributor for the defending Super Bowl champs, the action in the backfield may finally be taking a turn for the better. At least that's the plan right now, but the New England ground attack has shown through 11 games that things don't always play out as planned.
New England rolled into Kansas City on Sunday riding its first two-game winning streak of the season. In the end, the defending champs did not fly home with a third win, and there was never really a chance at any point that they would. The Chiefs used a balanced offensive attack and an opportunistic defense that hauled in four interceptions to send the Patriots home on the wrong end of a dominating 26-16 defeat.
Trent Green completed 19 of 26 passes for 323 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions for a 127.6 passer rating against New England's still very suspect secondary. The Chiefs' Larry Johnson carried the ball 31 times for 119 yards and a touchdown. And big plays continued to haunt the Patriots, as each of the five Chiefs that caught a pass had at least one reception for more than 20 yards, including a 52-yard touchdown catch by Dante Hall.
Offensively, things weren't much better for the Patriots. Tom Brady completed 22 of 40 passes for 248 yards with just one touchdown and the four interceptions (three of which ended in the hands of Chiefs safety Greg Wesley) while getting sacked three times. The Patriots ground game couldn't get much done either, as the team rushed just 18 times for 74 yards, and those numbers included two end-arounds for 17 yards for Tim Dwight and a 15-yard Brady scramble on third-and-long.
The loss left Patriots coach Bill Belichick admitting that his team simply got outplayed in all areas of the game.
"We didn't play well enough," Belichick said. "I think that goes across the board. They played better than we did."
The Patriots (6-5) remain atop the mediocre AFC East heading into this week's matchup with the Jets at Gillette Stadium.
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