The running back position is the “strongest, deepest position on the team,” according to Bill Belichick via Tony Romo during the broadcast of the week 15 win at Pittsburgh. Assuming Tony Romo was telling the truth, it’s not surprising for Belichick to appraise his running backs as the best group on the team. The Patriots have an embarrassment of riches in 2017, a stockpile of versatile backs who give New England unprecedented positional versatility.
Nowhere is this positional versatility more pronounced than in 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end, two wide receivers). Including Pro Bowl fullback James Develin, the Patriots can transform from a power-run scheme to an empty backfield in the blink of an eye, all within the 21 grouping. From early downs to obvious passing situations, New England’s trio of versatile backs (Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, James White) presents impossible matchup scenarios for any type of coverage. After a few weeks of tinkering and incorporating new faces into the offense during the beginning of the season, New England appears to have settled on the 21 personnel as a primary avenue to exploit their running backs’ versatility.
Through the first four games of the 2017 season, the Patriots lined up in 21 personnel 19% of the time. Since then, the Patriots have run 21 personnel on 33% of all offensive plays. The next highest team over that time is San Francisco at 24%. No other team is above 20%. Nine teams run 21 personnel less than 1% of the time, with 5 teams not running a single play out of that grouping. It’s safe to say the Patriots are on an island.
But it’s not the increase in raw snaps in 21 personnel that’s interesting, it’s the myriad of ways the Patriots deploy the grouping. To start, Dion Lewis has taken the reins from Mike Gillislee as the primary runner. Through the first four games, Gillislee led the Patriots with 57 carries, with Lewis getting just 18. Since week four, Lewis has 118 carries to Gillislee’s 41, with Gillislee inactive for six straight games.
Gillislee’s demotion is well documented, but the shift to Lewis seems to have materially changed New England’s play calling, specifically in 21 personnel. In weeks 1-4, the Patriots ran the ball just 38% of the time with a success rate of 55% in 21. Since week 4, the Patriots have run the ball 58% of the time with a success rate of 65% in the same grouping, per Sharp Football Stats.
Lewis is almost always paired with Develin in the 21 grouping, often on early downs. The combination of Lewis’ effectiveness between the tackles and Develin’s blocking ability gives New England an elite power run game. Below is a clip of a trap play the showcases Develin’s ability to block. When you have a fullback who can act as a pulling guard and manhandle an interior defender, you have options.
And, of course, a great running game opens up the play-action. In the 1st quarter of week 12 against Miami, New England ran a two-play sequence in 21 with Lewis and Develin. The first play was a handoff to Lewis up the center with Develin pummeling the middle linebacker for a 13-yard gain.
On the next play, the Patriots run play-action. The linebackers bite and give room for Phillip Dorsett to clear the second level and find space in Miami’s zone. It doesn’t hurt that speed demon Brandin Cooks clears out the entire deep third of the field.
The Lewis/Develin combination is the arguably the best running back/fullback duo in the NFL; Pro Football Focus ranks both Lewis and Develin as the 4th best at their positions. The fact that Lewis is also an excellent receiver makes this duo even more dangerous. He’s not just a run specialist who opens up the play-action, he routinely slips out the backfield as a receiver. The Patriots opened the Pittsburgh game with this group and went play-action on 1st down, with Lewis finding a soft zone in the middle of the field for a 13-yard gain.
Just as the Lewis/Develin duo is the primary run option for the 21 personnel, the Burkhead/White tandem is the preferred passing down pairing. In the past three games with Gronk, the Burkhead/White combo was featured in every 3rd down that used 21 personnel, save for one play at the end of the Steelers game after Burkhead was injured. The duo is also featured heavily in 2nd and long scenarios.
Both Burkhead and White are above average pass catchers who can split out at wide receiver in a pinch, while also being capable pass blockers. In passing situations the duo provides significant flexibility; New England can go empty backfield or max pass protection depending on coverage. Both White and Burkhead can exploit favorable man-to-man matchups while commanding respect against zone coverage.
Below is a clip against Buffalo with the Bills in zone. Both White and Burkhead help on the defensive ends before slipping out to the flats. The corner on the far side is pulled towards the threat of White, leaving Amendola plenty of space underneath the safety for an easy 27-yard completion. On the near side, the corner does the opposite, following Brandin Cooks downfield and leaving Burkhead wide open. This play illustrates the impossible choice that corners are forced to make when defending this formation in zone. Had the Bills been in man coverage, there would have been a significant mismatch somewhere across the formation. The dilemma is real.
Perhaps the most interesting combination the Patriots use in 21 is the Burkhead/Develin pairing. But it’s not the duo itself that is intriguing, there is nothing peculiar about Burkhead and Develin playing together, it’s how the Patriots use them. New England seems to introduce the Burkhead/Develin combo as a counter to specific defensive schemes or as a change-of-pace-unit.
In week 10 against Denver, the Patriots opened with a 3-and-out after a couple of runs against an eight-man box. Following a muffed punt, the Patriots substituted Burkhead for Lewis and ran two plays that took advantage of Burkhead’s matchups. The first play featured Burkhead in the backfield with Develin split wide to stretch the defense. This isolated Burkhead on the linebacker, who had no chance in man coverage.
The second play essentially swapped Burkhead with Develin, isolating Burkhead against the safety with no help in the middle with Gronk being triple teamed. That’s about as easy as it gets for Brady and a response to the stacked box against the Lewis/Develin combo.
Against Pittsburgh, the Patriots started their 2nd quarter drive with a no-huddle offense featuring Burkhead/Develin. Over the first three plays, Burkhead and Develin lined up at wide receiver, giving Brady an empty backfield and forcing Pittsburgh into some unfavorable matchups, including Amendola against and linebacker and Gronkowski against a safety. New England quickly moved the ball downfield for an eventual field goal.
Like most things involving the Patriots’ offense, Rob Gronkowski is a critical component to the success of the 21 personnel. He’s impossible to cover with just one player (re: Sean Davis) and his ability to ruin people as a blocker is fundamental to New England’s attack. But Bill Belichick’s accumulation of versatile running backs and a powerful fullback gives the Patriots the ability to mold their offensive scheme week-to-week or even play-to-play. Burkhead’s injury impacts the traditional 3rd down grouping (White and Burkhead), but Lewis should be able to slide into Burkhead’s role over the final two weeks of the season.
Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels always seem to save a few tricks and gadget plays for the postseason. With a gluttony of versatility, don’t be surprised if they appear out of 21 personnel.