The New England Patriots were uneven offensively against the Los Angeles Chargers. While the team struggled inside the red zone and finished with only 21 points despite four trips into the opponent's 20-yard line, it was able to move the football well against a talented Chargers defense. A big reason for that was the play of New England's running backs.
As has been the case last week, the four-headed monster of James White, Mike Gillislee, Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead saw plenty of action. And while the Patriots' offense was less balanced than it was against the Atlanta Falcons, the running back corps was busy as it was more involved in the passing game today. As a result the group combined to gain 62.3% of New England's total offensive yardage.
To put this percentage into numbers, the Patriots registered 414 yards of offense against Los Angeles' defense (on a whooping 82 plays). Of those 414 yards, 258 yards were gained by New England's runners as they played as big a role as they did all year versus the Chargers – a testament for the group's versatility, productivity and importance within the system run by coordinator Josh McDaniels.
Dion Lewis led the running backs with 31 snaps and touched the football 17 times when on the field. Lewis finished as the Patriots' leader in carries (15) and yards (44), while also being the recipient of two Tom Brady pass attempts (for 10 yards). But while he led the position in snaps and touches, Lewis trailed both James White and Rex Burkhead in terms of total yardage gained.
Both were more involved in the passing game than Lewis, who has become New England's number one runner over the last few games. White and Burkhead, on the other hand, form the one-two punch at receiving back and finished with five and a team-high seven catches, respectively. White, who played 20 snaps, gained 85 yards through the air – most on the team – and two on his lone carry.
Burkhead was on the field for a season-high 26 offensive snaps and gained a combined 83 yards. He carried the football four times for 15 yards while also gaining 68 on his above-mentioned seven receptions. With the Patriots' struggling to get into a consistent aerial rhythm, both White and Burkhead oftentimes served as the safety blankets for Brady and the results speak for themselves.
The results also speak for what Mike Gillislee brings to the table: He is the short-yardage back and closer. With the team employing a more pass-oriented game plan, the first-year Patriot was on the field for only 13 snaps. He did, however, carry the football on 11 of those snaps and gained 34 yards. Nine of Gillislee's carries came in the third and fourth quarter as the team tried to milk the clock.
All of the four running backs played a big role in Sunday's victory over the Chargers despite their varied use. But it is exactly that what makes them so unique and dangerous – and important: The Patriots' backfield is able to help out when the team is struggling offensively, be it through downhill running or by offering quick-connection receiving weapons in the flat. Against Los Angeles, this was on perfect display.