Kevin Faulk a huge loss for Patriots

Kevin Faulk might be viewed as a third-down back by the rest of the NFL, but he's far from it. He's really a workhorse.

No New England Patriots running back played more in each of the 2007, 2008 and 2009 seasons. Through two games this season, Faulk was on pace to once again serve as the team's primary running back, as he was on the field for 51 of 123 plays (including penalties).

The way the Patriots attack on offense, with quarterback Tom Brady most comfortable in the shotgun and preferring to strike through the air, makes their running back usage different from that of many NFL clubs. They're not looking for a Shonn Greene-type grinder to lead the way, but instead a sound pass-protector who runs routes like a receiver and has reliable hands.

That's why Faulk, who is all those things and more, was so important to New England's offense.

Through two games this season, Faulk's 51 plays easily outdistanced Fred Taylor (36), BenJarvus Green-Ellis (26) and Sammy Morris (16).

He had been targeted in the passing game 10 times, the fourth-highest total on the team, while also expertly serving as Brady's last layer of protection as a blocker. He had eight rushes for 45 yards and six receptions for 62 yards -- solid production by any measure.

So while Faulk might be 34 years old and the longest-tenured Patriot (in his 12th season), he was still playing young.

But now the Patriots are preparing for life without their veteran captain, with Faulk having torn his right ACL in Sunday's loss to the New York Jets, an NFL source confirmed. What could mean the end of Faulk's impressive career also means the Patriots must draw up new plans quickly.

Morris stepped into the "passing back" role when Faulk was knocked out in the fourth quarter, and he's the likely replacement in the short term. Former New York Jets running back Danny Woodhead, signed to a one-year contract Saturday, also figures to be in the mix.

The Patriots also could get creative and tap the versatility of tight end Aaron Hernandez, who has lined up in the backfield at times, or look to the free-agent market, where there have been few if any Faulk types available since veteran Brian Westbrook joined the San Francisco 49ers in mid-August.

"He's a unique player; there's no question about it," Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said of Faulk. "Blitz pickup, there's a lot that goes into it. It's not just line up in the backfield and you block this guy. There's a lot of components and multiples.

"He's proven year in and year out how valuable of a player that he is, and nobody respects Kevin Faulk more than our team and our club, and myself included. There are a lot of factors that go into playing that position, with blitz pickup being just as important really as carrying the ball, or catching the ball for that matter."

Perhaps there is no greater example of Faulk's value as a pass-protector than the 2008 season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs, when Faulk sat out to serve a one-game suspension and blitzing safety Bernard Pollard lunged into Brady, tearing ligaments in Brady's knee.

Faulk also brings a lot to the locker room with leadership. He's one of the team's four captains, a Bill Belichick-type player when it comes to consistency, reliability and durability.

So while Faulk might be classified by some as a third-down back, that doesn't come close to telling the complete story.

The Patriots just lost their top running back.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.