The trend is impossible to ignore. The 2012 New England Patriots are dedicated to establishing a running game early on and have shown a willingness to stick with it despite mixed results.
Following the injury of Aaron Hernandez, much of the talk has surrounded Wes Welker and how the Hernandez injury could impact his role in the offense. However, as the Patriots have proved already this season, the key to the offense will not be more touches for Welker—although that will certainly help —but the effectiveness of Stevan Ridley.
Against the Titans, Ridley ran strong to the tune of 125 yards and a touchdown while simultaneously launching Patriots fans into a frenzy that has not been seen since the days of Robert Edwards. For the next several days, the excitement over a Patriots team capable of winning that ugly, slugfest style game was almost impossible to get away from.
Then came Week 2. The Arizona Cardinals came to Gillette Stadium and the Patriots opened with their commitment to the running game. By halftime, the Patriots had scored just six points and hardly looked like a team with an identity.
Everyone knows the rest of the story. The Patriots picked up the passing game en route to a comeback that would have been completed had Stephen Gostkowski not kicked a 42-yard field goal towards his warm-up kicking net on the sideline.
They played the physical slugfest on their home field and they lost.
Ridley had 13 of his 21 touches in the first half. Other than his 558th career catch with the Patriots, Welker did not touch the ball before the 30-minute mark.
Who will have a bigger impact on the outcome of the game?
As much as losing Hernandez hurts this Patriots offense, the playcalling has been just as detrimental. The Patriots have been—at least since 2007—a predominantly passing team that uses the run sparingly. In the modern NFL, with a quarterback like Tom Brady, this is an alright strategy.
The Patriots game plan against the Ravens should be the same one they have employed year after year against them: make Brady abuse Welker until Welker can't walk the next day.
Welker caught four passes for 80 yards in the second half of Sunday's game and the Patriots scored 12 points. It's not a great output, but it's better than the first half.
If the Patriots try to continue this physical style of play against the Ravens, they will be forced to make plays late in the game.
Whether the circumstances are a comeback or simply maintenance of a lead, well that depends on how the running game performs and how willing the Patriots are to abandoning it if necessary.