New England Patriots running back Rex Burkhead suffered a knee injury that is expected to keep him sidelined until the playoffs, which opens the door for Mike Gillislee to re-enter the line-up as the short yardage back and as a rotational player with Dion Lewis.
Gillislee hasn’t played since week 8, prior to the Patriots’ bye week, but he averaged 12.3 carries for 44.4 yards and 0.5 touchdowns over the first half of the year. Burkhead’s return from a rib injury and superior versatility allowed New England to make Gillislee a healthy scratch for the past six weeks.
But you won’t hear Gillislee complain about it.
“I’m a team player, and I’m always going to put my team first,” Gillislee told the Boston Herald prior to Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. “We’re out to get something, and that’s to go to the championship, the Super Bowl. That’s the goal, and I’m going to do whatever I can to help my football team get there. Whatever that is, whether it’s practicing, being on scout team, of course I want to be out there, but I’m going to do whatever it is to be a part of the team and not distract them.”
The Patriots are preparing to host the Buffalo Bills next Sunday and a victory would push New England closer to homefield advantage, while Buffalo needs a win to stay in the playoff picture. Gillislee is a former Bills and Dolphins running back and has been inactive for all possible revenge games.
Next week should be his first chance to show his former teams what they’re missing, and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick thinks Gillislee has been working hard for a return, even if Belichick’s not yet sure what the running back’s role will be during the game.
“Mike's very consistent,” Belichick said. “He works hard all of the time. We'll see how it goes with Rex. I’m not sure exactly what the extent of his injury is. We'll see how that goes. I think at this point all of our players have been told and need to know that they need to be ready to go every week. We need everybody and it could change from one week to the next or somebody’s role could change within the game very quickly. We're at that time of year.”
Gillislee has 98 carries this year, three shy of his career-high of 101 and it would be notable to reach that new mark against his former team. Perhaps the Patriots will be willing to give Gillislee a few targets as a receiver to increase his versatility and prevents the Bills from stacking the box.
Dion Lewis looks to be the primary beneficiary of a sidelined Burkhead, while Gillislee and James White will probably each take a piece of Burkhead’s production as a runner and receiver, respectively. Whatever the job, Gillislee will be ready for his comeback.
“I love football, and of course I want to be out there,” Gillislee said. “All I can do is work hard and wait on my number to be called again.”