Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney started the season on a roll. The Patriots ran for 183, 147 and a season-high 234 yards in three of their first four games and ranked third in the NFL in rushing offense. Since the impressive performance in Cincinnati, however, the New England running game has stalled a bit. The combination of Dillon and Maroney have only topped the 100-yard mark three times in the team's last eight games, causing the Patriots to drop from the third-best rushing offense all the way down 12th.
As quarterback Tom Brady knows, this is the time of year when the running game should be improving, not searching for an identity.
"Going into these late months of the year where the weather makes it more difficult to throw, you need to run the football," Brady said. "When you need to control the clock in tough weather conditions, the running game is extremely important."
The Patriots' yards-per-carry averages over the past three games have been 3.1, 2.5 and 3.3. Actually, the team has only averaged more than 4.0 yards a carry in five of its 12 games. It's hard to pinpoint why the Patriots ground game has been up and down this year. Some have suggested it's due to the backs rotating carries or inconsistent play from the offensive line. Fullback Heath Evans has another theory.
"It's the NFL. You have dominant running games across the league, but it's not like you're going to bust out for 200 yards rushing every week," he said. "For us, we put an emphasis once we get down in the red zone to get the ball into the end zone."
While the Patriots haven't run the ball with a lot of success as a whole in recent weeks, they have been almost impossible to stop inside the red zone. The team ranks second in red-zone offense, and a lot of that has to do with the physical running of Dillon. The veteran has 10 touchdowns in 12 games, with all of them coming from short range.
"He's a bull," Evans said. "We call him the rock around here. People don't want to tackle him, and as it gets later in the season, they definitely don't want to tackle him. Our offensive line is excellent. They work hard and get the job done for us."
Dillon and Maroney have been splitting carries ever since the opener against Buffalo. Dillon's 20-carry performance in Week 2 against the Jets is the only time this year that a Patriots back has carried the ball 20 times in a game. So who gets the carries and when? That's a question only coach Bill Belichick can answer.
"It has been a combination of things," Belichick said in regards to which running back is on the field in different situations. "I would say that sometimes it's just rotating players by series. Other times it's by certain formations. It's usually not by play. It's more by personnel groupings. I think it's worked out in a fairly balanced way for Kevin, Laurence and Corey. It's not like anybody is sitting there charting and saying, 'OK, this guy has caught three balls and now we have to throw them to somebody else and this guy has carried five times and this guy has only carried once.' We just kind of do what we do."
There's been speculation that Dillon is still hampered by an arm injury he sustained early in the year against the Broncos. However, the veteran hasn't appeared on the Patriots' injury report, and Belichick isn't concerned about Dillon's ability to carry an extra workload if he's called upon.
"I think Corey has good stamina. He's been pretty durable for us," Belichick said. "Corey is more than capable of carrying whatever load we give him."