It’s no secret: the New England Patriots have not been running the ball well in short yardage situations. The Patriots have had 28 plays in 2017 where they need to gain 1 yard- whether on the goal line or on 3rd and 1- and they’ve run the ball. They’ve converted on 19 of those attempts.
Tom Brady has converted all 4 of his short yardage plunges in 4 different games. Dion Lewis is 3 for 3, with all attempts coming against the New York Jets. Rex Burkhead converted his 2 attempts against the Atlanta Falcons. James White failed on his lone attempt against the Kansas City Chiefs.
And then there’s Mike Gillislee, who has converted 10 of his 18 attempts (55.6%). The non-Gillislee runners have converted 9 of their 10 attempts (90.0%). Gillislee converted his three last attempts against the Los Angeles Chargers and he remains the Patriots choice running back in short yardage situations, but his already limited role could shrink if he doesn’t improve.
The loss of time is particularly unfair because the failures in short-yardage are not always his fault. Sometimes the blockers simply don’t do their job by missing their man or blocking the wrong way (Shaq Mason is the only lineman not at fault). Other times the play call is bizarre (why so many stretch runs to the outside in short yardage?). And then there are times when the defense simply does an outstanding job making sure there’s nowhere to go.
Gillislee is also not without fault. Sometimes he misreads the numbers advantage and runs towards the unblocked defender instead of staying behind his blocks. But the majority of the failed attempts in short yardage happen before Gillislee even has a chance to get to the line of scrimmage.
This isn’t to say that the Patriots should simply keep giving Gillislee the football. Much like the situation with Dwayne Allen, where I believe both Gillislee and Allen have the talent to produce, Gillislee just isn’t getting the favorable opportunities he needs to thrive in the Patriots offense. But unlike how Allen was banished from the passing offense, Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears is still going to give Gillislee carries.
“Mike’s my biggest back. He’s my strongest runner. I’m going to give him a shot at it first,” Fears said via ESPN. “If somebody has a chance to run through and make a play, he has a chance to do it as far as if he has to physically run through a guy.”
But until the blocking up front is more consistent for Gillislee, then the Patriots might as well keep giving the ball to Lewis and Burkhead for the sake of extending the drive. Gillislee’s already seen his playing time slashed in half and the other two running backs are playing well enough that he might not get it back.
I still think Gillislee has a role with the Patriots and he’s definitely running with more purpose now than he was at the start of the season. But maybe he’s more of a first and second down runner than a clock killer or consistent short yardage option. We’ll certainly find out over the second half of the season.