With Patriots' running game, is improvement more about OL or RBs?

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- After the New England Patriots’ 20-18 loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game, Bill Belichick was asked about the defensive scheme that gave his club so much trouble.

“They did a good job, and we hadn’t run the ball well enough to take them out of much of that,” he said.

And therein lies one of the themes of the 2016 Patriots offseason: With the running game essentially a non-factor when it counted, what has to happen for that to change next season?

Some have pinpointed improvements along the offensive line. Others point more towards the personnel at running back. Then there’s another line of thinking that it starts with coordinator Josh McDaniels showing more of a willingness to establish/stick with that part of the game.

Let’s dissect all three of those areas:

Offensive line personnel. My feeling is that the Patriots aren’t far off from where they want to be. The first step is getting starting left tackle Nate Solder back from a torn biceps injury that ended his 2015 season on Oct. 11. Solder’s $10.3 million salary-cap figure is currently the third highest on the team and there’s a reason why; he’s one of the team’s best offensive linemen. His return should flip Sebastian Vollmer back to right tackle, which is his more natural position. And then Marcus Cannon, assuming he’s back, can return to the No. 3 role with a higher-upside draft pick developing behind the scenes. Factor in the team’s hopeful development of young interior linemen -- including third-year center Bryan Stork (who had a down year), undrafted center David Andrews, and guards Tre’ Jackson and Shaq Mason -- and the foundation is in place for improvement.

Running back personnel. Dion Lewis should be back from a torn ACL, but one question the Patriots have to ask is if it’s too much of an injury risk to handle the significant workload they gave him in 2015 before his injury. Meanwhile, top power back LeGarrette Blount is a free agent coming off a season-ending hip injury, so that spot could be open to a younger option. In retrospect, the Patriots didn’t have as much depth at running back as it initially appeared, because when Lewis (Nov. 8) and Blount (Dec. 13) both were lost for the year, there wasn’t much to fall back on to keep the running game afloat. The team obviously didn’t think Jonas Gray was part of the solution, but hadn’t developed another option in his place. That’s why I view this as the area as the one that trumps all in this discussion, and wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots go with a 2011-type draft approach (e.g. Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen) and double dip at the position. More talent and depth is needed at running back.

McDaniels’ approach. The Patriots want to be a game-plan offense that morphs its attack on a week-to-week basis to exploit the weaknesses of the opposition. If the running back talent improves, I think we could see more freedom for McDaniels to turn to this area more often, and in turn, give the offensive line more of a chance to establish itself physically through the run game (not to mention preserving Tom Brady from taking unneccesary hits). In 2015, my feeling is that McDaniels was handcuffed at times in his play-calling, forced into more of a one-dimensional approach because of the shortcomings/lack of depth at running back.