Pats still hunting go-to rusher

Associated PressLeGarrette Blount (27), now a Steeler, is tackled by Philadelphia Eagles’ Trent Cole (58) on Thursday night. He was huge here in New England last year and his numbers will be tough to replace.

FOXBORO — LeGarrette Blount’s venture into the news this week — an arrest for possession of marijuana along with Le’Veon Bell in Pittsburgh — got me thinking this week about his absence here in New England.

Clearly it matters little to the fandom, still blinded by Thursday night’s 100 percent quiz grade against the Panthers.

But how will the Pats replace Blount’s toughness, his fearlessness and most important, his 944 yards and 11 TDs (regular season and playoffs combined)?

“They’re all running hard and finding ways to contribute, so they’ve all got opportunity and it’s great competition. It brings out the best in everybody,” said Tom Brady, who isn’t about to divulge the new leader of this nondescript pack.

The truth is, with two weeks to the opener in Miami, there is no lead runner in camp.

Stevan Ridley remains less than his 2012 self, in which he rushed for 1,263 regular season yards. Watch him now. He accepts the handoff, wraps up the football with two hands, hesitates and then goes ... if/when the defense has not collapsed on him.

Ridley is the victim of eight (official) fumbles in two years. It gnaws at him, and you see it in his tentative nature.

He may overcome the disease as Kevin Faulk (23 fumbles in his first 8 years, 2 in the final 5) did. Faulk’s uncanny character had plenty to do with that. I’m just not sure Ridley has it in him.

Brandon Bolden has been the odd man out this summer, with only three carries in the exhibitions (two fewer than Ryan Mallett) he may not figure in the grand plan.

James White was the talk of early camp by the media, but his 2.8 yard a carry average doesn’t exactly evoke memories of Barry Sanders.

Jonas Gray and Roy Finch? Practice squad at best.

And that leaves us with Shane Vereen, last seen leaving a permanent grin on Pats fan faces from Augusta to Torrington with his 40-yard TD catch and dash.

I’ve written it once before. Put nothing into that, not with some journeyman linebacker, second-year man A.J. Klein, having him in one on one coverage.

That will NEVER happen in a real game. Carolina played one simple vanilla defense all night, whether the Pats went four wides or three tight ends. When gameplans are installed, the game changes.

Vereen is lightning and can catch the football. He’s also fragile, having played 26 games out of a possible 48 in three pro seasons.

At best, he’s a poor-man’s Faulk (Kevin, not Marshall).

And that leaves New England to worry about first and second downs, especially in the chill/snow/wind of December and January.

The good news? New England’s chief competition in the AFC, Denver, has a similar dearth of talent at the running back position.

Yep, they’re just as delusional in Denver, thinking that Montee Ball is the answer. Did anyone notice his three fumbles as a rookie? All three were costly.

And he’s coming back from an appendectomy.

Knowshon Moreno is the poster child for NFL mediocrity, but he’ll be missed out there.

For a while, none of this will matter, with Brady and Peyton Manning out there winging it in the warm climes of September and October.

Toughness, though. It makes the difference in the playoffs. And Blount proved it last year. He was a force.

ONE MORE CLARIFICATION

The Pats media couldn’t wait to tackle Chandler Jones after the game on Thursday night, not just for his two sacks but to talk about Jones stepping back in coverage as part of a defensive set the Pats will never, ever use in the regular season.

At one point, Jones was one-on-one against Carolina receiver Kelvin Benjamin, a first-round pick out of FSU last May.

“It was something I worked on in camp,” said Jones, whose answer came straight out of the Belichick book on playing the media. “Kelvin Benjamin, he’s a legit player. We kind of joked at the end of the play, like, ‘Oh, that was a close one.’ He was calling for the ball.”

The truth, Benjamin was wide open, and backup Derek Alexander never saw him.

And who cares? Jones will never be asked to do that when it counts. It was vintage Belichick, filling future foes with something to think about that’s just a mirage.

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