Much has been made this week about the production -- or lack thereof -- of the Patriots' tight ends.
But production has to do with a more than catching passes.
The only pass Tom Brady threw toward Chris Baker bounced off his helmet, a play that epitomized the rough first half the Patriots' passing game endured. But Baker had quite a bit to do with the Patriots' success running the ball -- and running the ball might have been the difference for the Patriots against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
The Patriots finished with 185 rushing yards, their second-highest total of the season. Laurence Maroney rushed 22 times for 94 yards, and Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris rushed for 58 and 35 yards, respectively. Even better, all three running backs had carries for at least 15 yards in the game.
"Good blocking and good running," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "There's no real magic formula to it. We've got to block them, and they've got a lot of guys to block."
Baker in particular seemed to block just about everyone in his way. On the Patriots' first big play of the game, the eighth-year veteran got his hands on defensive end Julius Peppers and shoved him out of the way of Maroney, paving the way for a 17-yard gain. Later in the second quarter, Sammy Morris ran a draw up the middle in which Baker served as the lead blocker, clearing out the linebacker to give Morris room to maneuver.
The Patriots have always loved two styles of run more than any other: Draws up the middle out of the shotgun and sweeps around the edge. Both require strong blocking from tight ends.
Runs around the edge haven't produced yards consistently for the Patriots this season, but they made it work on Sunday. Even on the third-quarter run on which Morris fumbled the ball, he was 10 yards down the sideline behind Baker before safety Charles Godfrey popped the ball loose -- and that was because Baker had buried outside ilnebacker James Anderson.
"Both tight ends were able to get the edge," Baker said. "Me and Ben (Watson) were able to get the edge. We were able to get good movement and good push on the ends and the linebackers."
The hesitation of a draw play only works because it allows a tight end on the edge to get through the hole and hit the middle linebacker -- in this case, the Panthers' Jon Beason -- and prevent him from getting anywhere near the running back with the ball.
Midway through a fourth-quarter drive that led to a field goal, Baker pulled from the right side of the line to the left and plastered the Panthers' prolific middle linebacker en route to a gain of eight yards for Laurence Maroney.
"The line has to get their guys moving, and that's what they did," Baker said. "After they got their guys moving, I was able to come in there and get a good clean look and get in there after Beason."
Said Belichick, "We got the ball outside, and we also ran plays inside, so we had some balance in the running game. That helped us on some play action passes. We got some guys open."
And Watson, the tight end of the other side, made the biggest catch of the game, a third-and-5 touchdown catch that gave the Patriots the lead for the first time. The much-maligned former first-round draft pick -- he was a candidate to be released at the end of training camp -- caught three passes for 37 yards in the game.
"Everyone always asks me, 'Why don't you get the ball to Ben?'" Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "When we do get it to him, he makes those plays."