At 40, Tom Brady is having one of the best seasons of the career and the Patriots own one of the NFL’s most prolific passing attacks as a result. However, the run game has also been crucial to the offense’s success and the team’s as a whole.
This offseason there was a bit of an overhaul for the Patriots at the running back position. Sure, Dion Lewis and James White had been around for years but out went LeGarrette Blount and in came Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee. Many wondered how the backfield split would shake out in New England and a lot has changed between the beginning of the season and now.
In week 1, Mike Gillislee scored 3 touchdowns against the Chiefs and looked like the main early-down back and goal-line bruiser for New England and a perfect replacement for Blount and his league-leading 18 touchdowns. How quickly things change. Now as they prepare to play his former team, the Buffalo Bills, Gillislee will likely be inactive as he has been for the past few weeks. After racking up 355 yards on 98 carries over the Patriots’ first eight games of the season in an early down and short yardage role, Gillislee has been completely phased out of New England’s run game after signing a 2-year $6.4 million deal with the team this offseason.
The Re-Emergence of Dion Lewis
Dion Lewis, who had previously shown flashes of stardom for the team, started to get more carries after Gillislee’s fumble against the Jets in Week 6. From that game through Week 12, Lewis has racked up 399 yards on 78 carries (5.12 yards per carry), effectively taking over the role of primary back for the Patriots. On the season, Lewis has career-highs of 97 carries and 498 yards (5.1 ypc) and appears to have fully recovered from two knee surgeries in 2015 and 2016.
Last week against the Dolphins, Lewis showed all the elusiveness and burst that makes him such a threat for New England. He’s a tough guy to bring down and once he hits the open field his speed poses a devastating threat for opposing defenses. Belichick also loves Lewis’ versatility.
— RichInFacts (@RichInFacts) November 13, 2017
Lewis’ explosive kick return ability makes him even more valuable to the Patriots. Add in his proven pass-catching ability (he had 36 catches for 388 yards and 2 touchdowns on 50 targets in 7 games in 2015) and you have someone that Belichick can feel comfortable playing on just about any down.
Given Lewis’ pass-catching prowess, it’s fair to wonder why he hasn’t been utilized as much in that area this year (15 catches for 87 yards and a TD on 16 targets). It could be a case of Belichick waiting to expand his role in that area in the postseason. It also helps that he doesn’t necessarily need to be a prolific pass-catcher out of the backfield because of the other running backs on the team’s roster.
James White and the rise of Rex Burkhead
After his fantastic performance in the Super Bowl, James White signed a 3-year, $12 million contract extension in the offseason and he’s sustained his performance as one of the league’s better pass-catching backs to this point in the season (47 catches for 378 yards and 2 TDs on 59 targets). However White, like Gillislee, has become less involved in the offense since the Patriots’ Week 6 game against the Jets, albeit for far different reasons. In Week 7 Rex Burkhead, whom the Patriots signed to a one-year $3.5 million contract this offseason, returned from a rib injury and White’s snaps promptly dropped from 42.6% against the Jets to 31.1% which was his lowest percentage of the season at the time.
White’s snap counts have stayed down since Burkhead’s return to the lineup (23.3%, 15.7%, 28.3%, and 25.7% from weeks 8-12) which speaks to both White’s reduced role and the versatility Burkhead brings to the Patriots’ lineup. James White is a great third-down and pass-catching back but he lacks the all-around ability of someone like Rex Burkhead. White doesn’t threaten defenses as much as a runner and as a result, his being on the field makes the Patriots offense more predictable.
This was some excellent open-field running by Rex Burkhead. pic.twitter.com/QnGjbinYM1
— Zack Cox (@ZackCoxNESN) November 27, 2017
Burkhead is a bigger, more physically imposing back who has more of a reputation as a versatile, traditional runner. One who can run effectively between the tackles and break some runs to the outside. Additionally, he’s shown some route-running and pass-catching ability that makes him a threat coming out of the backfield. His versatility has already helped the Patriots greatly in the red zone. Burkhead is also a quality special teams player, which knowing Belichick’s love for special teams, endears him to his coach even more.
If I told you at the beginning of the season that Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead were the most important running backs on the Patriots, you probably would have called me crazy. Well, here we are in Week 11 and that’s the case. Burkhead and Lewis provide a versatility for the team helps bring the offense AND special teams to an elite level. When either of them are on the field, defenses can’t simply predict what the Patriots intend to do. They have to account for any type of play and the pressure that puts on defenses opens the offense up even more for Brady.
Knowing Belichick, the running back rotation could change for the Patriots in any given week. However, using Burkhead and Lewis as the team’s primary backs is working wonderfully for the Patriots as they head into the season’s home stretch so you can expect to see both of them on the field plenty going forward. As a matter of fact, don’t be surprised if you see them even more as the weather gets colder.