After Dion Lewis suffered his season-ending ACL injury only two potential passing backs were left on the Patriots' roster. It was widely expected that James White would assume the majority of that role. On Sunday against the New York Giants White only had one catch on one target and one run for a total of eleven yards. This stunning lack of production begs the question of where James White was and what he was doing during the game.
As it turned out James White was on the field for 28 of 73 offensive snaps, of which eleven came on the Patriots' game-winning drive. His 16 previous snaps (it seems that I've missed one snap somewhere, but I don't know where exactly) broke down as:
|First Down||Second Down||Third Down|
White was primarily used as the third-down back and was on the field for every Patriots' third down. Both of White's touches came on a third down, one being a draw play on 3rd and 17 in the second quarter and the other a first down catch in the fourth quarter. White's lack of production didn't hurt the team in particular since the offense was still able to go 7-14 on third down with one of them being the spike to set up Stephen Gostkowski's game-winning field goal.
Looking at the tape it becomes fairly clear why James White only touched the ball twice. On many occasions he was asked to help out the offensive line by staying back for blocking duties. White's roles on the field were:
|Lined up as WR||Run||Out of backfield||Chip-and-go||Blitz pickup|
Having said that, how did he perform? On passing plays out of the backfield he got open on most of the plays. It just turned out that Brady preferred going with his first option, while on another couple of plays the protection broke down before Brady could look for something. An example for the latter one is the 3rd and 7 in the first quarter where Brady scrambled for the first down.
White is lined up in the backfield alongside Brady and after a little hesitation breaks out to the left and manages to get a step on the Giants' safety Craig Dahl. However, Bryan Stork allows #91 Robert Ayers to come free and Brady has to escape a collapsing pocket.
Looking at the Giants' coverage the lack of protection appears to have cost the Patriots an opportunity at a touchdown. Jayron Hosley, after knocking down Julian Edelman, drifts towards the middle of the field where Gronkowski's headed, looking at Brady. That leaves absolutely nobody on the left side of the field in front of James White. Also, Brandon LaFell manages to get a step on his defender on his way into the endzone.
Speaking of Gronkowski, hey refs, what in the world does it take for you to call a defensive pass interference or illegal contact call in favour of Gronkowski? Way beyond five yards from the line of scrimmage #59 Devon Kennard has both arms hanging onto Gronk while the second Giants' defender has both hands on the Patriots' all-world tight end.
The lone occasion James White was lined up outside as a receiver also saw him getting open against former Patriot Jonathan Casillas. White made the most of the play design where he runs a crossing route while using Dobson running a deep route as a natural pick. The play is executed to perfection and White makes a nice cut to get wide open and make the catch for the conversion.
With White asked to stay back and help out on blocking so much it's also necessary to take a look at his blitz pickups. Generally White did a solid job recognising and picking up his man. He also avoided complete whiffs, although he doesn't bring the strength Dion Lewis possesses and gets pushed back (but not down) more often. One of the sacks Brady took on Sunday was made by Craig Dahl, who was White's man, although it is hard to blame White for that.
On this 3rd and 4 in the redzone in the second quarter the Giants rush three, with Craig Dahl coming on a slightly delayed blitz. White steps up to pick up Dahl and gets knocked back, but not down. The protection of Brady here isn't optimal and while nobody is coming free outright, it results in a somewhat chaotic situation which confuses Brady a bit. He probably saw Stork's man getting to the outside and panicked a bit, running directly into Josh Kline and the sack. Meanwhile Stork successfully pushed his man out of the picture which means that Brady probably could've stayed back and tried to hit the open LaFell for a first down.
Last but not least, on the Patriots' game-winning drive James White was present for all snaps. On all but three plays he was tasked with a chip-and-go. In general he did an okay job helping out with the chip as far as it's possible, although a bad chip that did nothing to help Fleming against Pierre-Paul on the very first play of the drive contributed to the near-interception. Obviously with the Patriots' lack of time and timeouts it just wasn't in the play design for him to receive targets. On the entire drive there was only one situation in which a ball to White could've made sense.
Here on 1st and 10 after Danny Amendola converted the crucial 4th and 10 White is going to chip #98 while going to left side of the field. Brandon LaFell appears to be running a deep route while Amendola is running a comeback route.
Brady chooses to go to Gronkowski, which is always a good choice, for seven yards. Meanwhile on White's side there should be ample space to pick up a first down if Amendola can make a block on his man.
All in all it is fairly clear that James White is no Dion Lewis. Everything he does is a level below. He is neither as fast, nor as shifty nor as strong as Lewis. And while I'm in favour of trying to get another passing back, James White's performance on Sunday does not have me on alert quite yet.