Aside from a disappointing effort in a Sunday night loss two weeks ago to the Broncos, the Patriots have put together quite a rushing attack through the first month of 2006. Thanks to a 1-2 punch of veteran Corey Dillon and rookie first-round pick Laurence Maroney, New England has literally run its way to a 3-1 mark to find its usual spot atop the AFC East.
That rushing attack was on full display in last Sunday afternoon's dominating 38-13 statement win over the Bengals in Cincinnati. Following up the disappointing effort against the Broncos, New England ground out 236 yards at Paul Brown Stadium.
Maroney led the way with his first career 100-yard effort, picking up 125 yards on just 15 carries (an 8.3-yard average) while reaching the end zone twice. His combination of speed, elusiveness and power has given the New England offense a jolt of energy as Tom Brady and Co. still seek out consistency in the new-look passing attack.
And while Dillon didn't have the big plays that Maroney did against the Bengals, including a 25-yard score and another 41-yard gain, he did chip in with 67 yards on 17 carries and one score of his own. He got plenty of tough yards against his former team.
In order for the banged-up Patriots, without starting defensive backs Eugene Wilson and Ellis Hobbs, to hang with the high-powered Bengals, they knew they had to run, and that's just exactly what they did. In fact, the 236 yards was just the third 200-plus yard effort of the Bill Belichick era in New England and the most for the team since 1993.
Suddenly, after seeing their quarterback lead the NFL in passing yards a year ago, the Brady-led Patriots possess a run-first offensive attack. Through four games, the team has churned out 616 yards on the ground with five rushing touchdowns. And aside from the dip against Denver, it seems to be getting better by the week.
"That was No. 1 on our list," Maroney said after the win, "we just knew we had to establish the running game. It felt good to bounce back."
Beyond taking pressure off Brady, who is still completing just 54.1 percent of his passes on the season with a passer rating just barely above 80, the rushing game has also helped out the New England defense.
"That fires me up when I see Corey Dillon running the ball like that and Laurence Maroney doing that," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "When they break off runs like that, I sit down and drink some Gatorade. And the clock is ticking. I love it."
"If your running game is working well, I think that's the best thing for any team," linebacker Rosevelt Colvin added.
The running game has been working more than well for the Patriots through the first month of 2006, and everyone -- from players on both sides of the ball to coaches and fans -- loves it. And if New England can keep that running game going, sooner or later, Brady and the passing attack will begin clicking as well. If that happens, the Patriots could really start rolling. Heading into a Week 5 home meeting with the Dolphins and coming off a dominating win over a Bengals team that was supposed to be establishing itself as one of the teams to beat in the AFC, that's a scary thought for opposing defenses to contemplate. Get run over by Dillon and Maroney or challenge Brady? Neither option can be all that appealing.