The New England Patriots hit the ground running against the Miami Dolphins, picking up 196 yards on the ground thanks to 112 from Dion Lewis and 50 from Rex Burkhead. It was the Patriots best day of rushing the ball in 2017 and the best by New England since Jonas Gray ran over the Indianapolis Colts in week 11 of 2014.
“We were running the ball super good today,” Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski said after the game. “I mean, I think we had 200 yards rushing, which is just an unbelievable job just as an offense as a whole.”
Lewis had a career game with his 112 rushing yards a new high and 113 yards from scrimmage his third-highest, behind his 120 and 138 yards from scrimmage in his first two games with the Patriots.
According to Pro Football Focus, Lewis “averaged 4.47 yards after contact and broke seven tackles” on his rushing attempts and currently ranks as the second-most elusive running back in the NFL. He is averaging 3.45 yards after contact, too, the fourth-best mark in the league.
“He did a tremendous job today,” Burkhead said about Lewis. “He was making guys miss, finishing runs and really just giving this offense a spark of energy. It’s fun to watch and all of the running backs really enjoy it.”
Lewis has played roughly 40% of the snaps over the Patriots seven-game winning streak, siphoning off roughly half of James Whites’ snaps. Burkhead has effectively just taken all of Mike Gillislee’s snaps while Gillislee has been a healthy scratch over the past three games.
The Patriots really enjoy having Lewis as the lead back because his versatility as both a runner and a receiver creates difficulties for opposing defenses. The Patriots have roughly a 50/50 run and pass split with Lewis on the field, versus a nearly 75/25 ratio with Gillislee on the field. The ratio is roughly 33/67 for Burkhead and 25/75 for White as the Patriots like to pass more with them on the field.
“I think anytime you got a group of running backs, especially like they do, you can stretch the field,” Dolphins head coach Adam Gase said. “You know, and then all of a sudden - you throw it underneath, and you have one-on-one match-ups across the board. That makes it tough and you know, when you expect a team that historically, with certain guys, they emphasize certain parts of the game, whether it be run/pass game. Now all of a sudden you start running the ball with them and you are expecting pass or vice versa. That’s what makes it tough, the [more] versatile those running backs are, that’s what makes it more difficult to defend.”
When Gase references that “a team historically emphasizes run or pass with certain guys,” he’s talking about how teams use running backs as a key for determining whether to focus on the run or the pass.
With Gillislee, on the field, opposing teams placed eight or more defenders in the box on 51% of snaps, the third-highest rate in the league, behind only the Jaguars running backs Chris Ivory (54%) and Leonard Fournette (51%). Teams stack the box against Jacksonville rushers because they share a backfield with Blake Bortles; teams shouldn’t feel comfortable stacking the box against a running back sharing the backfield with Tom Brady, but the Patriots refusal to throw the ball to Gillislee allowed teams to predict the New England play call.
But with Lewis in the backfield, teams put eight or more in the box just 31% of the time, ranging from 64% against the Denver Broncos (Rex Burkhead faced eight or more 60% of the time in week 10); 30% of the time against the Oakland Raiders; and a mere 13% of the time against the Miami Dolphins, the fifth-lowest rate in the NFL for week 12.
Teams have to respect Lewis as a receiving threat and it makes his day between the tackles and the job of the offensive line much, much easier, even if they’re going against players like Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and pass rusher Cameron Wake, since the linebackers can’t crowd the line of scrimmage and need to be available to cover in the flat.
Right guard Shaq Mason used Suh’s momentum against himself and center Ted Karras climbed to the second level to remove linebacker Kiko Alonso from the equation. Lewis faked a step to the outside and Alonso bit on the move because he was thinking about covering Lewis out of the backfield.
Instead, Lewis took the handoff and broke free into the second level and picked up 25 yards.
Lewis did a great job bouncing off the contact at the second level to break free with a huge gain, but Mason also did a great job against Suh, Karras erased Alonso, Joe Thuney executed a difficult reach block on Jordan Phillips, and LaAdrian Waddle and Rob Gronkowski removed Cameron Wake from the play. The hobbled offensive line did a great job opening up lanes for the running backs out of the backfield.
“They’ve done a tremendous job all year,” Burkhead said about the offensive line. Those guys don’t get the credit they deserve. They’ve really done a great job and really opened up things for us offensively in the pass game. Just being able to establish the run opens up a lot of other things. Just the grind that they go through every day down there in the trenches and the hard work they put in. It shows on Sundays.”
If David Andrews and Marcus Cannon can return to the lineup to boost the Patriots’ run blocking, and Lewis and Burkhead can continue their dominance out of the backfield, then instead of peaking too early, the New England offense will continue to ascend down the final stretch of the season.
Lewis is the most dangerous rusher on the Patriots and he should continue to shine in the coming weeks. Remember how his game against the Miami Dolphins was the third-best of his career, behind his first two games in a Patriots uniform? Well, those first two games were against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills.
The Patriots next four opponents are the Bills, Dolphins, Steelers, and the Bills again. Look for a few more encore performances by Lewis and the Patriots rushing attack.