Lead­ing OFF

Re­source­ful Pa­tri­ots, Belichick keep find­ing new ways to win

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - LEADING OFF - Colum­nist USA TO­DAY Jar­rett Bell

FOXBOR­OUGH, Mass. – No­body in the NFL finds so­lu­tions quite like Bill Belichick.

That’s why Cor­dar­relle Pat­ter­son, the kick re­turner and re­ceiver for the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots, lined up as the fea­tured run­ning back in the I-for­ma­tion over and over dur­ing an­other stab at win­ning in Week 9.

It’s the Pa­triot Way. Some­body had to do it.

Yet even with Belichick’s ex­ten­sive track record as the league’s most re­source­ful coach — he once con­verted re­ceiver Troy Brown to cor­ner­back in a pinch — it might have been too much to ex­pect that Pat­ter­son would lead the team in rush­ing against the Green Bay Pack­ers.

But that’s ex­actly what hap­pened in a game when the short-handed Pa­tri­ots again had to roll with­out first-round rookie run­ning back Sony Michel, out again with a knee in­jury.

“I said I wanted 25 car­ries this week,” Pat­ter­son main­tained af­ter the 31-17 win.

He wound up with 61 yards on 11 runs, get­ting his most sig­nificant backfield duty late in the first half af­ter util­ity threat James White hob­bled to the side­line with a foot in­jury.

White even­tu­ally re­turned, but Pat­ter­son finished the drive by blast­ing up the mid­dle for a 5-yard touch­down. Later, he nearly scored on an­other goal-line plunge.

Plan B worked well enough. “When­ever my num­ber’s called,” Pat­ter­son said, “I’m ready for what­ever I need to do on the foot­ball field.”

Pat­ter­son has also scored touch­downs this sea­son off a long pass from Tom Brady and off a long kick­off re­turn. It’s strik­ing that for a for­mer first-round tal­ent whose NFL jour­ney was marked by dis­ap­point­ment on stops in Min­nesota and Oak­land, he is hit­ting a par­tic­u­lar stride with the Pa­tri­ots. He was ob­tained last spring from the Raiders, an­other Jon Gru­den castoff, in a swap of late-round picks.

No, he likely isn’t des­tined to be­come a bread-and-but­ter back. Yet with his com­bi­na­tion of size and speed, he’s been an in­trigu­ing op­tion for spot backfield duty on ev­ery NFL stop. Belichick knew

when he traded for Pat­ter­son that he might help out in a pinch.

But even Belichick, who ear­lier this year placed run­ning backs Rex Burk­head and Jeremy Hill on in­jured re­serve and now waits on Michel’s re­cov­ery, didn’t en­vi­sion the sce­nario to un­fold as it has.

“Look, that’s the way it is in the Na­tional Foot­ball League,” Belichick said. “What looks like good depth can get washed away in a hurry.

“I mean, we thought we had good depth at run­ning back and we did at one point in the year. But depth in Au­gust and depth in Novem­ber are two differ­ent things. We have what we have now and hope­fully that’ll im­prove. But we’ll see.”

In the mean­time, Belichick, whose of­fense was also with­out in­jured all-pro tight end Rob Gronkowski dur­ing Week 9, keeps deal­ing from the deck at hand.

Pat­ter­son wasn’t the only re­ceiver with an ex­panded role that punc­tu­ated a cre­ative night. Ju­lian Edel­man, a for­mer quar­ter­back at Kent State, set up the goa­head TD in the fourth quar­ter with a 37yard com­ple­tion to White off a dou­ble pass that be­gan with Brady throw­ing a lat­eral to the re­ceiver.

Edel­man was also the tar­get for a fleaflicker pass ear­lier in the game. And he, too, ran from the backfield and net­ted 28 yards on two car­ries.

In fact, the 13 rush­ing at­tempts by Pat­ter­son and Edel­man were the most for wide re­ceivers in a game for an NFL team since 1993, when Eric Met­calf car­ried 15 times for the Browns, then coached by Belichick.

“Our coaches do a great job of us­ing what we have, us­ing the tal­ents of what we have,” Edel­man said. “By no means am I say­ing I’m a ta­lented thrower, but they do an awe­some job with that stuff.”

The cre­ative twists rep­re­sented more signs that af­ter stum­bling in Septem­ber dur­ing defini­tive back-to-back losses at the Jack­sonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions, the Pa­tri­ots (7-2) have re­cal­i­brated to as­sume their usual po­si­tion as one of the AFC’s top play­off con­tenders. Their win­ning streak has hit six games, and the Pa­tri­ots scored at least 38 points in four of those con­tests.

Yet it’s still very much a work in progress.

Al­though the de­fense had the most con­sis­tent pres­sure it has pro­duced all sea­son against Rodgers and came up with a fourth-quar­ter take­away, it has been short on big plays for the much of the sea­son. It is still too early to trust the unit as cham­pi­onship-cal­iber.

Just think: In one of the sig­na­ture wins of the streak, the Pa­tri­ots gave up 40 points to Patrick Ma­homes and the Chiefs … and had to sweat out the finish.

The effort by the offense had some quirks, too. New Eng­land couldn’t score on four cracks from the 1-yard line in the third quar­ter, al­low­ing Green Bay a goalline stand when Brady’s fourth-down pass to Josh Gor­don bounced off a de­fender as Gor­don slipped on his cor­ner route.

Gor­don, a Browns castoff who, like Pat­ter­son, seems re­ju­ve­nated in New Eng­land, had a 55-yard touch­down catch to seal the out­come. And his pres­ence rep­re­sents an­other layer of the progress in play for Belichick’s team.

But Belichick knows: More so­lu­tions are needed. It’s a long way from the finish line.

STEW MILNE/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Pa­tri­ots wide re­ceiver Cor­dar­relle Pat­ter­son was pressed into rush­ing du­ties be­cause of in­juries in a win against the Pack­ers.

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