Don't expect Kevin Faulk to shy away from contact this week.
"It's a physical game," Faulk said. "It's a brutal sport. You're going to get hit regardless. Sometimes we get hit when we don't even have the ball."
But staying healthy will become more and more important this week as the Patriots' depth chart at running back absorbs more and more casualties. Fred Taylor underwent ankle surgery two weeks ago and appears to be out indefinitely, and Sammy Morris left Sunday's game with what appeared to be a serious knee injury. (Neither player was present at practice on Wednesday.)
"We'll go with what we've got," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "The guys that are healthy, they'll play. The guys that aren't, we know will be back as soon as they can. I know they're working hard. We'll just take those guys day-to-day. When they're ready, we'll plug them back in there. In the meantime, there'll be more opportunities for the guys that are active."
Those opportunities presumably will go to Faulk, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and Laurence Maroney, the only three healthy running backs on the roster this week. All three saw significant time against the Titans last Sunday:
* Faulk had one carry and had three receptions, including a screen pass he took 38 yards for a touchdown;
* Green-Ellis rushed seven times for 67 yards in his first appearance of the regular season;
* Maroney quieted some of the critics that had been all over him in the early going, rushing for 123 yards on 16 carries, including a 45-yard touchdown rush behind a key block from Sebastian Vollmer.
Green-Ellis in particular is likely to see an expanded role this week against Tampa Bay. Maroney almost certainly will start the game, and Faulk will play the same multifaceted role he's played throughout his career. Green-Ellis, though, likely will see some third-down carries as well as some first- and second-down carries on drives during which Maroney is taking a breather.
"Law Firm" spent the entire preseason on the bubble, the fifth-best running back on a team that wasn't necessarily going to keep five running backs on its roster. His play in exactly this type of situation a year ago, though, gave him new life -- and every injury means he takes another step up the ladder.
"BenJarvus did a good job for us in the preseason, but he did a good job for us last year, too," Belichick said. "That carried a lot of weight, his performance in the '08 season when he was called on at different points in time. ... He has a lot of versatility. I really think he can play on all three downs -- on all four downs, to be honest with you. He's not limited in any situation where he's just a first-down back or just a third-down back or just a returner or anything like that. He really can operate in all of those situations pretty effectively. He's smart, and he knows what to do in all those things, too."
What makes the Patriots' situation even trickier is the fact that they like to use their running backs in their passing game. They don't just catch the ball out of the backfield, either; most of the Patriots' four- or five-receiver sets this season have featured at least one running back split out wide.
"You've seen all our backs line up pretty much everywhere," Belichick said. "The problem for a defense when a back splits out is, how do you want to match up with it? Probably your best matchup is to put a linebacker -- not that the other guys can't cover him, but you waste a corner or a safety on a running back. Generally speaking, those guys aren't as good of receivers as your receivers, and you end up with a linebacker covering a receiver or a linebacker covering a tight end."
With fewer backs available, the Patriots' options seem to become limited in that regard -- especially if they want to have any of their backs alongside or behind Brady in pass protection.
Then again, the Patriots also are down to three healthy wide receivers, too, barring a last-minute activation of Terrence Nunn or Brandon Tate. If they want to run any four- or five-receiver sets, they're going to have to get their running backs involved.
"It's on everybody," Faulk said. "Those guys are gone, but it is on everyone to step it up. You never know who's going to be in that position, who's going to be in that spot, to be in that role."