Boy, those New England Patriots. Just when you think you have them figured out, they're changing again.
First the Patriots turned into a spread offense, taking their ball-control system and turning it into an aerial circus. Then they redefined the role of the tight end, putting two versatile players at the position and attacking the middle of the defense.
Now, they're at it again. These days, being a running back is where it's at in New England.
Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and (once he heals) Aaron Hernandez are still in the picture, as is new addition Brandon Lloyd. But the Patriots have decided that running the ball can be just as efficient and lethal as throwing it—if not more so.
This newfound interest in the running game has produced immediate dividends.
New England is third in the league in rushing. Stevan Ridley is on pace for 1,568 yards. Brandon Bolden has rushed for almost 200 over the past two games. Even 5'8" Danny Woodhead is breaking off 19-yard runs on 3rd-and-17.
As has been the norm since Corey Dillon's huge 2004 season, New England has been getting the job done with a stable of running backs, rather than relying on one back to carry the ball over and over and over again. This time, however, the talent and depth in the backfield is at a high level.
Here are the strengths and weaknesses of each contributor to New England's ground success.
He has all the skills. He can't trample people like Adrian Peterson, outrun them like Jamaal Charles or catch the ball like Darren Sproles, but he does a lot of things better than most.
Ridley usually sports a high yards-per-carry average, and it's easy to see why. He's very decisive with his cuts, quickly deciding where to go and hitting the spot right away.
His vision is also very good, so the spot he picks is usually the right one. It's a combination that often has Ridley three or four yards up the field before the defenders can get their hands on him.
While not exactly a burner, Ridley is a lot quicker and faster than his predecessor, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who had similar vision but didn't have the athleticism to turn those good reads into big gains.
Bottom line, he's a dangerous running back who's a perfect complement for a passing game that keeps defensive coordinators up nights as it is.
Once again, ball security is an issue to monitor with Ridley. Fumbles at the end of last season derailed a promising rookie campaign. Though his start to this season has been stellar, a fumble out of bounds against Buffalo and turnover against Denver likely has Bill Belichick back in his ear.
To his credit, Ridley's fumbling moments don't seem due to being nonchalant. He was extremely broken up by his turnover against the Broncos and seems to know the importance of protecting the football.
He's also not terrific in the passing game, though he has lined up out wide several times due to checks and audibles Tom Brady makes at the line of scrimmage.
Bolden's Ole Miss background, undrafted status and dreadlocks lead to inevitable BenJarvus Green-Ellis comparisons, but Bolden has a lot more quickness and burst than his fellow Rebel alum.
Bolden runs hard and knows how to find a hole and get to it. He doesn't go down easily and shook off several poor tackle attempts during his breakout, 137-yard performance against the Bills.
He's constantly looking for the big play and doesn't miss his chance when he gets it. He ran for a 27-yard gain against the Bills and then ripped off a 24-yard burst against the Broncos.
His rushing totals are impressive, considering it took the Patriots three games to give him a decent workload. Great undrafted pickup.
While Bolden can break the big run, he's also been prone to getting stopped at the line. Taking away his performance against Buffalo, which can't stop anyone, and his long run against Denver, his other 20 carries have produced an average of 2.25 yards per carry.
Woodhead is great in the passing game. He's got great hands and has grown from someone who just caught halfback screens to someone trusted to run routes and make catches in traffic.
He's also good on draws, with a knack for slipping through holes due to his small size. He usually gets more yards than seem to be available on a carry. With good agility and ability in the open field, he's a solid third-down back.
With his size, Woodhead wasn't built to run through the line, as he was asked to do for much of the Ravens game, when he tallied 15 carries for a paltry 34 yards.
He's a niche back and can't be counted on to do much more outside of his third-down role with the team.
Injuries kept Vereen off the field for most of last year and this year, but he was drafted for his skills as a quick back with good hands.
Vereen needs to show he can stay on the field. It's hard to get a sense for what his role and capabilities with this offense are, seeing as he's only carried the ball 17 times in two years. He's healthy now, so hopefully that will start to come into focus.