When running back Dion Lewis suffered a season-ending ACL injury in week 9 of the 2015 season, the New England Patriots lost their most dangerous, versatile and productive option at the position. On Sunday – 379 days after gingerly walking off the Gillette Stadium turf – Lewis returned to the field.
"I didn’t really think about it being my first game in a year. I was just ready to go," Lewis said after making his 2016 debut in a 30-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. The 26-year old played 21 snaps on Sunday, his lowest playing-time percentage since joining the Patriots, and finished with eight touches for 49 total yards.
Let’s take a closer look at his performance.
Six of Lewis’ snaps came out on running plays, highlighting once again how he is the most versatile of the Patriots’ backs. While James White is primarily a receiving back and LeGarrette Blount predominately carries the football, Lewis is used in both capacities. On Sunday, he carried the ball five times for 23 yards.
His most productive rushing attempt came in the second quarter:
3-9-NE 40 (:27) (Shotgun) D.Lewis left end ran ob at SF 48 for 12 yards (A.Bethea).
In a 3rd and 9 situation – one of four 3rd down snaps for Lewis – late in the first half, the Patriots aligned in an 11-personnel package with Tom Brady (#12) in the shotgun and Dion Lewis (#33) on his right side:
Prior to the snap, New England motioned wide receiver Danny Amendola (#80) from the boundary inside to form a two-man stack with fellow wideout Malcolm Mitchell (#19) in order to create the impression of a screen pass. At the snap, Brady made a quick motion to fake a pass attempt to Amendola but instead handed the ball off to Lewis.
With the 49ers defense crowding the weak side of the formation, New England’s offensive line and tight end Martellus Bennett (#88) did a nice job of blocking that way. This, in turn, allowed Lewis to run behind the other side:
With Bennett and wide receiver Julian Edelman (#11) winning their one-on-one battles, Lewis only had to elude one defender – safety Jaquiski Tartt (#29) – to hit the open field. He was able to do that by not running inside between Bennett and Edelman but instead making a quick cut to the outside:
Tartt fell for the initial trajectory and therefore was out of balance to stop the outside run. Lewis took advantage and ran by Tartt en route to a first down:
Despite the small sample size and his final rushing numbers not looking overly spectacular, Lewis looked good running the football. He also flashed the traits that made him a dangerous weapon on the ground last season: He was patient to let the blocks develop in front of him, was able to quickly change course in traffic and probably most importantly showed confidence in his ability to make cuts. Coming off two knee surgeries, this third point cannot be stressed enough.
Given the dual-threat he is, Lewis also saw plenty of time in the passing game. Overall, 15 of his 21 snaps came in a passing situation. The 26-year old was targeted five times and caught three passes for 26 yards. Three times, he stayed home to work as a pass protector.
Lewis’ first catch of the day came on the Patriots’ first drive:
3-3-SF 20 (12:23) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass short left to D.Lewis pushed ob at SF 11 for 9 yards (J.Tartt). 9-yds YAC
After a Danny Amendola punt return set up the team deep in San Francisco territory, the Patriots gained seven yards on their first two offensive plays (one of which an incomplete pass intended for Lewis, tipped at the line of scrimmage). Following a timeout, the team faced a 3rd and 3.
New England’s offense used 20-personnel for the playing, aligning Brady in the shotgun, flanked by Lewis on the left and fellow running back James White (#28) on the right:
San Francisco countered with a cover 2-look. The coverage is usually sound when it comes to covering the flat and yet, Tom Brady went there because he trusted Lewis to gain enough yards for a 1st down.
After the snap, the two running backs released into the flat areas. The one Lewis was heading to was left vacated as Mitchell went on a curl route. The defender in charge of covering the left side flat, cornerback Keith Reaser (#27), bumped Mitchell after release and therefore had to turn around before dropping further to the outside:
Brady went through his progression quickly before throwing a short pass to Lewis, whom Reaser had not yet reached. The running back caught the football on the 20-yard line – 3 yards short of the 1st down marker – and the defender had a chance to take him down after only minimal gain. However, Lewis’ momentum and speed allowed him to break the tackle to pick up additional yardage and a fresh set of downs:
Last season, Lewis was one of the hardest players in the NFL to take down. At the time of his ACL injury, he had broken a league-leading 43 tackles. Naturally, seeing him break the first tackle attempt of his 2016 season is an encouraging sign – as is the fact that it came out of a formation, that is one of the most intriguing ones in the Patriots’ offensive playbook: the two-back set.
Lewis’ return allows New England to use the formation more than it had earlier this season. After all, both he and White are excellent pass catchers out of the backfield but can also carry the ball (Lewis has shown more in that area than White) and work as pass protectors. In short: due to its multiplicity, it is a hard set to defend against.
Overall, the two-back set was used three times on Sunday. The first was Lewis’ 9-yard gain we just looked at. The second – which came in the fourth quarter and saw only White go on a route and Lewis stay home to pass protect – resulted in an incomplete pass. Out of the third two-back formation, the Patriots scored on a 56-yard touchdown pass to Malcolm Mitchell.
As mentioned above, New England also used Lewis as a pass protector. On three of his snaps he worked as a blocker, showing a strong push at the point of attack while playing with a balanced base and a lot of patience. Pass blocking was an underrated aspect of his 2015 campaign and at least on Sunday, Lewis was able to show why he is a tough player to move.
The Patriots also used Dion Lewis in other ways in the passing game. He aligned in single-back sets, shotgun and, on two snaps, flanked out as a receiver. He caught one pass out of the latter formation:
1-10-NE 18 (10:46) T.Brady pass short left to D.Lewis to NE 26 for 8 yards (Q.Dial). 2-yds YAC
The Patriots started their second drive of the second half in a 21-personnel formation. Brady aligned under center, with Lewis the lone running back behind him:
However, prior to the snap, Lewis motioned to the far left side of the field. This forced San Francisco to change its coverage to a single-high safety look as cornerback Rashard Robinson (#33) move to the boundary to take Lewis while safety Eric Reid (#35) motioned to the slot to cover Malcolm Mitchell:
After the snap, Brady looks to the right side of the formation before re-setting his feet and looking the other way. At that point, Lewis has started an in-cut about five yards into his route. With Robinson playing the receiver with a cushion, this move left Lewis open – something Brady knew as well as he released the pass immediately after looking Lewis’ way.
Brady delivered a perfect pass, allowing Lewis to not break his stride. Still, he was running towards inside linebacker Michael Wilhoite (#57), who was in a perfect position to tackle Lewis. However, despite setting his tackle up patiently, Wilhoite was unable to even touch him due to a fantastic move by Lewis:
The cut allowed the running back to pick up additional three additional yards. Once again, Lewis displayed his elite elusiveness on the play as he perfectly executed his juke. He was able to stop on a dime before accelerating again to leave Wilhoite behind.
As the season goes along and Lewis gains more confidence in his surgically repaired knee, his playing time and productivity will increase – as will the ways the Patriots will use him and fellow running backs James White and LeGarrette Blount. The team already has arguably the best skill position group in the NFL; one that has gotten even better thanks to the return of Dion Lewis.