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Dion Lewis has transformed from a third-down back to an every-down back

The Patriots running back is having a career year rushing the ball.

NFL: New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

We don’t need any advanced statistic or film to tell us that New England Patriots RB Dion Lewis is a special player, and an even better athlete.

Since the 5-foot-8, 195 pound running back came to New England in the 2015 season, he hasn’t been anything less than electric. We have seen incredible plays, from ducking under defenders in Dallas to the magician’s trick catch against in Miami this past Monday, and a lot of wins.

However, due to his size and how the Patriots had primarily used him in the past, he has often been labeled as a third-down, or “change of pace,” back. Hell, back in 2015, I even thought of him in that way with LeGarrette Blount as New England’s primary starter. This clearly isn’t the case this season though.

Despite signing restricted free agent RB Mike Gillislee, Lewis has been New England’s ‘bellcow’ back. Gillislee recorded 98 rushing attempts during the first half of the season, but hasn’t had a single carry since the week eight matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers. In the five games since then, Lewis has a team-leading 59 carries – the most on the team. The 59 carries in the past five weeks is just the beginning of it though, as Lewis has 117 rushing attempts this season, far more than his previous career high of 64.

One potential reason for the increased usage in the run game for Lewis could be his health. In his first two seasons with the Patriots, Lewis only played in seven games each season, but has played in all but one in 2017. Yet, when looking deeper into his usage, it’s fair to compare his success this season with the previous two, as he hasn’t even eclipsed the snap count total from his tremendous, but short 2015 season.

Lewis’ snap counts

Year Games Snaps % of total snaps
Year Games Snaps % of total snaps
2015 7 298 26.7
2016 7 163 14.6
2017 13 268 29

Note: the % of total snaps is over all the games played that season, not just the ones that Lewis played in

It isn’t all that surprising to see that Lewis’ snaps per game count is down however. Following some tough injuries, the Patriots have been careful with Lewis. Sharing the backfield with the likes of Rex Burkhead, James White, and Gillislee has also led to less snaps.

The interesting piece about the snap counts for Lewis the past three seasons is the comparison between 2015 and 2017. When Lewis burst onto the scene in 2015, he played early and often, but New England finished the season with the 30th ranked rushing offense. Lewis was a complimentary back that was excellent in the passing game, finishing with 33.4 rushing yards per game and 55.4 (!!) receiving yards per game.

Once again, this season has been different. Lewis has been involved in the passing game more sparingly, racking up about 10.5 yards per game, but he’s also been rushing for nearly 47 yards a game. With more weapons at Tom Brady’s disposal this season, along with the development of James White as the third-down back, the focus for Lewis has been more on rushing.

Lewis’ rushing statistics

2015 49 243 4.8 2
2016 64 283 4.4 0
2017 117 607 5.2 3

Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels’ efforts to incorporate Lewis more in the run game have been obvious. Lewis has seven games with 10 or more rushing attempts this season, compared to just four in his first two seasons with the Patriots.

New England’s top two running backs

Year 2015 2016 2017
Year 2015 2016 2017
Top 2 RB Blount, Lewis Blount, Lewis Lewis, Burkhead
Games together 6 7 9
# of attempts for Lewis 34 64 93
# of attempts for other 95 117 60

Note: White and Lewis are technically New England’s top 2 RB this season by snap count, but White’s lack of carries since week one led to me putting Burkhead over him.

Even with the increased number of attempts for Lewis this season, one cannot be the team’s every-down back if they’re not the rusher that the team turns to when everyone is healthy. With Blount in the mix the past two seasons, the Patriots were much more reluctant to hand Lewis the ball in the backfield.

This same idea was seen early in 2017, with Gillislee, the bigger back, racking up a hefty amount of carries throughout the first half of the season. But, while Gillislee fell off the face of the earth after week eight, it was actually in the week six matchup against the New York Jets in which Lewis became the lead back, recording more carries than Gillislee in weeks six through eight. Since that matchup, Lewis had rushed at least 10 times in every game until Monday night against Miami (pay attention, McDaniels).

Although the number of carries Lewis has recorded this season is impressive, what is even more impressive is how efficient he has been. It’s easy to see that he’s been effective by looking at his insane 5.2 YPR average, which ranks second amongst running backs (Alvin Kamara – 7.0). But, another interesting statistic to quantify a player’s effectiveness is Net Yards Over Average, or NYoA.

With NYoA, a team’s field position, down, and distance are taken into account. The statistic measures a player’s success on plays in certain situations. If they gain more yards in that situation than the NFL average, then their NYoA goes up.

Lewis ranks 10th for running backs in rushing NYoA with 82.59 yards over average. That means Lewis is consistently gaining more yards than expected. Quite the valuable trait.

And if none of these statistics have convinced you already, look no further than Pats Pulpit’s own contributor Ryan Keiran and his work over at Setting the Edge on his “Offensive Run-Game Win Value” series. The series attempts to quantify a “running back win,” with a win being any rush that keeps an offense on track to pick up a first down.

Football fans understand the importance of establishing the run. With consistent “wins” rushing the ball, it allows the offense to keep the defense on their toes and get in a rhythm. So where does Lewis rank in succeeding on winning rushes? Fourth.

Ryan Keiran

Three-quarters of the way through the season, Lewis ranks fourth (!!) of all qualifying running backs with a 13.54 rating (only Ezekiel Elliott, Le’Veon Bell, and Todd Gurley rank higher). Let’s take a second here and look at those names. Lewis is in great company.

I would also like to take this opportunity to take a shot at myself. Following his impressive breakout in 2015 with New England, I watched all of Lewis’ rushing attempts to see where he found his success. And while I gladly looked upon my statement of Lewis having “the chance to become as much as a dynamic runner as a receiver,” I am haunted by and ashamed to admit that I once said Lewis would “likely be exposed” in an every-down back role.

Lewis’ size and past injuries, along with New England’s depth at the running back position, has not limited him in evolving as a back. He should undoubtedly be New England’s primary running back moving forward.