FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 14: Stevan Ridley #22 of the New England Patriots runs with the ball against the Denver Broncos during their AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Gillette Stadium on January 14, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
One of the biggest question marks surrounding the New England Patriots as we continue waiting impatiently for the season to start is the running game. The team lost its leading rusher to the Cincinnati Bengals in the offseason and cut Joseph Addai, the tenured veteran who knew how to work out of a no-huddle offense and adjust on the fly. What the team is left with are two virtual unknowns at the pro level in Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley, who seem positioned to take over the primary running back duties along with Danny Woodhead. There is also undrafted rookie Brandon Bolden in the mix, but nobody really knows anything about him either. The nature of New England's offseason acquisitions leads me to believe that the running game is going to be a key cog in the Patriots offense in 2012, but questions still remain as to just how big a role the running game will play.
Last season, the team rushed for 18 touchdowns, although one of them came on a backwards screen pass to Rob Gronkowski and three more were QB sneaks by Tommy B. That leaves 14 touchdowns accounted for by the team's running backs, and the man who scored 11 of them is no longer with the team.
So what should the over/under be? Will the Patriots rush for more than 18 scores this year as a team? Will Brady want to add a few more QB sneak rushing touchdowns to his resume now that he shares a division with Tim Tebow? Will Aaron Hernandez see some time at running back as well and get a few in there? The easy way out here is base the over/under around last year's numbers and leave it at 18, but I think that there are enough potential running threats to go just a little but higher this year. The over/under for team rushing touchdowns this year is 20.
Why you should bet the over: The Patriots didn't use two high draft picks on running backs and add all these fullbacks and large tight ends to simply use them as decoys. I'm still confident that we are going to see a resurgence of old-school smashmouth football in New England to compliment what is going to be a highly potent aerial attack. Both Ridley and Vereen are coming off their first full offseason and seem poised to be a large part of this offense. Losing BenJarvus Green-Ellis was a blow, but when you have a back that simply doesn't fumble it's easy to lose sight of the fact that he simply wasn't a home-run threat and didn't have that grind-it-out, clock-killing ability. Benny represented a nice compliment to the passing game, but this current corps of running backs and fullbacks has potential to be major contributors. Plus, having more size often translates into more running plays around the goal line, which could turn some of last year's red zone passing TDs into rushing TDs. There's also the defense to consider; yes, this unit has improved from last year, but it isn't significantly better than it was in 2011 and it lost its two sack leaders. If the Patriots are going to win games, they are still going to do it with their offense, and a great way to compensate for a less-than-stellar defense is to keep them off the field with long, sustained drives that end in points. And while it's a blast to watch, the no-huddle offense that simply marches down the field and scores at will isn't conducive to keeping the defense rested. This team needs a dangerous running game, and I think this is the year that they really make that next step towards having one, particularly with Josh McDaniels running the offense.
Why you should bet the under: Sure, this running back corps has great potential, but they also said that about me in grade school. There's a big difference between having potential and being able to deliver, and as a whole these running backs are fairly untested. They are going to need to prove themselves worthy of being workhorses and allowing the offense to run through them before they start getting a serious share of the offensive snaps. Plus, when you have Tom Brady quarterbacking your offense and he's throwing to players like Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker, and Rob Gronkowski, it wouldn't be overly prudent to not utilize those weapons simply because of a desire to stick to your guns and establish the run game. Furthermore, the addition of Brandon Lloyd adds the deep threat that was missing last year, and we could very well be seeing touchdown plays off of long bombs, which would obviously take away drives that end in the red zone and thus eliminate opportunities for the backs to punch the ball in. At the end of the day, this is still Tommy B's team, and his offense is a passing offense. The team had 17 rushing touchdowns during their record-setting 2007 campaign, and if we are on the verge of seeing another similar (NOT 16-0, not even talking about 16-0, don't want 16-0, don't think about 16-0) statline from Brady, there just won't be enough ground touchdowns to go around. I mean, what's the point of having all of those fun toys if you aren't going to use them?
So what do you think? More or less than 20 team rushing touchdowns this year?