FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- On one of the first drills of New England Patriots training camp in 2010, coach Bill Belichick had the football placed at the 2-yard line. The message couldn't have been any clearer.
After a 2009 season in which red zone struggles were too prevalent -- too many field goals, not enough touchdowns -- getting better production in that area was going to be a primary point of emphasis over the course of the year.
The plan ultimately worked, the tone set on the first training camp practice.
Fast-forward to the present season, and the timing is right to highlight the 2012 version of the 2010 red zone story.
Welcome back, running game.
Thanks to you, other areas of the offense, such as play-action passing, open up.
If there was a game that reflected the Patriots' renewed commitment to the run, it was the Sept. 30 matchup against the Bills, when they rang up 247 yards on the ground. The Bills kept their small lineup on the field, daring the Patriots to run. The Patriots did, with remarkable success.
Would the Patriots of old have done the same thing?
"I think the coaches did a great job this offseason making that a point of emphasis for our offense, to make sure we get this running game going and stick with it. That's what [coordinator] Josh [McDaniels] has been doing," receiver Deion Branch said Friday.
"Overall, that was something we were lacking last year. The thing is, when something is working well, you stick with it. Even though we were throwing the ball all over the place [in 2011], as a team we still wanted to run the ball. We just took advantage of whatever the teams gave us.
"I think this year, more of a point of emphasis was to be a little more balanced than last year. I think our pass-run ratio was high pass, less run. I think if you want to be an effective team in November, December, January and February, you have to be more balanced. I think that's what is helping us out. As a receiver, we always want to catch the ball, but I think to be a complete team, you have to be able to run the ball."
The Patriots have 276 rushing attempts through eight games and 323 pass attempts.
Last year through eight games, it was 199 rushing attempts and 321 pass attempts.
In averaging 34.5 rushing attempts per game this season, the Patriots are easily outdistancing their average carries per game from the previous three seasons -- 27.4 in 2011, 28.4 in 2010 and 29.1 in 2009.
Interestingly, as noted by ESPN Stats & Information, quarterback Tom Brady's play-action passing stats are actually down from the past three years:
But this looks like a case in which stats don't tell the full story, as evidenced by the team's most recent game, a 45-7 rout of the St. Louis Rams.
The play-action game was lethal against the Rams, as Belichick detailed in his weekly film segment on the team's official website when he showed a 25-yard catch by tight end Rob Gronkowski and said, "It's almost impossible to get receivers open like this when you just drop back and throw."
Brady's final touchdown pass of the game, a 14-yarder to Gronkowski, also came on play-action. On the year, Brady has six touchdowns on play-action and no interceptions.
This all goes back to the offseason and the early days of training camp.
"The more Coach Belichick and Josh drive it into us in practice ... we'd be out there one day and spend all day running the ball," Branch said. "The message was that's what we're going to do."
The Patriots also had that previously mentioned defining moment Sept. 30 in Buffalo. After being disappointed with their rushing attack in the second and third weeks of the season, they broke out against the Bills. New England will look to build on that success this Sunday, when the Bills visit Foxborough.
"Each and every game is so different, but I think we've been pretty much balanced all season. There have been some games when we ran the ball a lot more than throwing it and were very successful," Branch said.
"Most defenses probably looked at our team in the past and said, 'This team is going to throw the ball.' So everybody is dropping and they're only rushing three or four guys.
"Now I don't think teams come to play us thinking it's all about throwing. We're a lot more balanced than we were in the past. That's a credit to the coaches and players, guys buying into us doing what we're supposed to do and sticking with the running game."