Pats' ground game has room to improve

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Seemingly every aspect of the New England Patriots' offense has been dissected and analyzed through the first 17 training camp practices, except for one.

It's an easy one to overlook with quarterback Tom Brady, receiver Randy Moss and a pass-first offensive approach that has favored the shotgun.

What about the running game?

While there has been significant change at almost every other position on the roster, running back is one that has remained constant, with Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor, Kevin Faulk and BenJarvus Green-Ellis all returning.

Through this early stretch of camp, it has been challenging to get a clear read on how the Patriots plan to divide the carries among them. Like 2009, it will probably be a committee approach.

At times, Taylor has been the first running back in drills, although he isn't reading much into it at this point.

"Whether you're 1, 2 or 3, whenever they put me out there, an opportunity is an opportunity," said the 34-year-old Taylor, who was limited to seven games last season (including playoffs) because of a right ankle injury.

"It's great competition, very healthy. We're all friends," Taylor added of the running back corps. "We all still lean on each other. We all know we have to give it our all each and every day, and just trying to do the plays that we're given, the opportunity to run and try to make it look good."

Any talk of the running game naturally ties in the blockers in front of the backs. The offensive line has worked some different combinations at center and guard, and the completely revamped tight end position is learning on the job, so there have been some uneven results on the practice field.

Maroney estimated about a 50 percent success rate running the ball in red zone and goal line situations. One time, he was swarmed by multiple defenders and popped by second-year inside linebacker Tyrone McKenzie short of the goal line, with McKenzie's helmet flying off at impact.

For those who believe teams develop a physical attitude in training camp, as well as the mindset that they will steamroll through opponents near the goal line, the first nine days of camp suggest the Patriots have work to do in that area.

"It's real physical going against those guys," Maroney said. "I look at it as if I can make some moves and get into the end zone on the goal line against our defense, with how good they are, I feel comfortable I can do it on any team."

Of the top backs, Maroney is the young buck of the group at 25, even though he's entering his fifth NFL season and the final year of his contract. Taylor, Morris (33) and Faulk (34) are also entering the final year of their contracts.

"I have a lot of veterans in front of me, a lot of guys who have been in [the league] a lot of years and done a lot of great things that I can learn from," Maroney said. "I feel real comfortable coming into my fifth year, just getting everything I've learned and getting it to where I can put it in my game.

"We are definitely heading in the right direction. It's still early. We have to improve and still work on our patience and footsteps, just matching up with the line. It looks good. It looks like it's moving toward goodness.'"

Student assistant Mike Rodak contributed to this report. Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.