When the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills meet again, so too will a couple of the most dynamic running backs in University of Pittsburgh memory.
LeSean McCoy amassed 2,816 rushing yards, 549 receiving yards and 36 total touchdowns for the Panthers from 2007 to 2008. And succeeding him in 2009 was Dion Lewis, who racked up 2,860 rushing yards, 405 receiving yards and 31 total touchdowns through 2010.
Over that four-season span under coach Dave Wannstedt, McCoy and Lewis accounted for 1,128 carries and 117 catches – as well as two Big East rookie of the years, two Big East offensive player of the years, and two second-team All-Americans.
McCoy and Lewis stand seventh and sixth, respectively, on the program’s all-time rushing list in result. They stand seventh and second on the single-season one, too, and third and fifth when it comes to career rushing touchdowns.
Neither was there for long.
The 5-foot-11, 210-pound McCoy broke into the NFL as a Philadelphia Eagles second-round pick in 2009, and the 5-foot-7, 195-pound Lewis followed him as a fifth-rounder two years later. The Pitt products spent two campaigns as teammates in Philadelphia before the latter was traded to the Cleveland Browns for linebacker Emmanuel Acho. Then, ahead of 2015, the former was traded to Buffalo in 2015 in exchange for linebacker Kiko Alonso.
But they’ll revisit one another as their side’s lead backs on Sunday afternoon.
McCoy, now 29, is on pace for his sixth 1,000-yard season. And Lewis, now 27, has already set career-bests in carries – 97 – rushing yards – 498 – rushing touchdowns – three – and total touchdowns – five – through 11 contests this year.
“McCoy can take any play and turn it into a play that doesn't look like any other play you've seen before,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said of the five-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro in his Wednesday press conference, via Patriots.com.
The same could be said of Lewis, who’s accrued 507 yards of offense since reclaiming a primary role in Week 5.
“I just react,” Lewis said in a recent sit-down with Patriots All Access’ Steve Burton. “God’s given me a great gift. A lot of my game is based off reaction, so I just try to get a feel for the defense and the defender, and try to make him show his hand before I show mine.”
The two will be among the keys in Orchard Park. Yet they’ll be far from the only ties between the AFC East opponents, who’ve both rostered the likes of cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Leonard Johnson, linebacker Ramon Humber, defensive end Eric Lee, wideouts Chris Hogan, Brandon Tate and Andre Holmes, and offensive linemen Ryan Groy and Conor McDermott.
McCoy and Lewis won’t be the only familiar faces in the backfields, either.
Also on Buffalo’s depth chart for the 1 p.m. ET kickoff is Travaris Cadet, now second-in-command to McCoy after signing on in November. And on New England’s depth chart is Mike Gillislee, who, despite being a healthy scratch for the last three weeks, still holds the team lead in carries.
Cadet entered as an undrafted free agent with the New Orleans Saints in 2012, and had a stint with the Patriots in 2015 that spanned six months and included one regular-season appearance. He began 2017 with the New York Jets, yet has since caught on for 105 yards from scrimmage over two games with the Bills.
“Cadet and I went up against each other in the NFC South division for a number of years,” Bills head coach Sean McDermott said on his conference call with New England media. “So, I knew of him and his skillset. Didn’t know him as a person, but I thought [Bills general manager] Brandon Beane and his staff did a good job of identifying Travaris and getting him in here when we needed him.”
Gillislee, on the other hand, is looking to be needed once again in New England. He’s gone from four touchdowns in two games to no touchdowns in nine games. Averaging just 3.6 yards per rush with a long of 16, Gillislee has seen both Lewis and ex-Cincinnati Bengal Rex Burkhead eclipse him, and has been off the 46-man active roster since the bye.
Whether that’ll change in Week 13 remains to be seen. But McCoy has heard from him.
“We’ve been talking,” McCoy said of Gillislee in his press conference Wednesday, per BuffaloBills.com. “We haven’t really been talking football, just seeing how he’s doing. He’s checking up on me. I’m good friends with him, with Dion. I’m not sure what they got going over there as far as who’s playing and why.”
Gillislee worked in tandem with McCoy last year and posted a league-best 5.7 yards per carry en route to 577 yards and eight touchdowns. He had seven scampers of 20-plus yards. And when the Patriots last traveled to New Era Field, it was No. 35, not the ruled-out McCoy, that the defense allowed a 28-yard pickup to.
Gillislee finished with 85 yards and a TD on a dozen handoffs in that Oct. 30, 2016 Bills loss. A two-year, $6.4 million deal, along with a fifth-round selection, brought him to Foxborough as a restricted free agent in April.