The New England Patriots are coming off back-to-back weeks of exceptional play from the running backs, with special credit to the tandem of Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead.
In the two games against the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills, Lewis has 204 rushing yards on 30 carries (6.80 yards per carry) and 1 catch for 1 yard. Burkhead has 128 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns on 25 carries (5.12 yards per carry) and 5 catches for 28 yards and another touchdown. Even James White has 65 yards on 13 touches over the past two weeks.
The Patriots gained over 190 rushing yards in each game, a feat achieved just once before under head coach Bill Belichick (weeks 4 and 5 of the 2012 season, thanks to Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden).
“It's huge because we know that's what's going to carry us later on in the season and in the next few games,” Burkhead said about the success on the ground. “You never know what the weather could be, especially this month and moving forward. It's big for us, it helps our offense, and like you said, any time we can establish that it's going to help us out.”
Burkhead also credited the offensive line by saying, “it all starts with them,” and it’s true. It also doesn’t hurt that the tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen are two of the best run blockers at their position in the NFL. Burkhead averaged 4.08 yards before contact against the Bills, according to Pro Football Focus, as sign of how much space they’re generating at the line of scrimmage.
The offensive line has done a great job opening lanes for the running backs, but some credit should go to the versatility of the running backs and the flexibility of the offense. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is the first to highlight why the running game is the product of game script.
“The things that we’re able to do in one game, sometimes that’s because of other circumstances or the way a team’s playing us,” Belichick said, “the way we feel like we can [run] plays we want to run against them, but each week’s its own challenge.”
I’ve written at length about how healthy-scratch running back Mike Gillislee was forced into an unfair opportunity because the Patriots refused to throw him the football. The fact that the Patriots never treated Gillislee as anything other than a runner allowed defenses to stack the box against the run whenever he was on the field.
Only Jacksonville Jaguars running back Chris Ivory (53.9% of snaps) and Leonard Fournette (51.2%) see a greater percentage of their snaps than Gillislee (51.0%) against eight or more defenders in the box. Teams do that to the Jaguars because they don’t respect Blake Bortles as a passer; there’s no excuse with the Patriots.
But while Gillislee averaged 3.62 yards per carry against these brick walls, the other Patriots running backs have seen much more favorable scenarios.
In week 12, Lewis faced eight or more defenders in the box on just 13.3% of snaps, while Burkhead saw them on 38.5% of snaps. In week 13, Lewis saw the same rate of eight or more defenders in the box (13.3%), while Burkhead faced them on a more favorable 25.0% of snaps.
Part of this strategy is to take the ball out of the hands of Tom Brady, by stacking the secondary and enticing the Patriots to run the ball against softer defenses. It’s a strategy that Brady and the offense will gladly embrace.
It’s easier to run the ball when teams aren’t stacking the box and teams don’t stack the box when they’re concerned about the running back catching the ball out of the backfield.
So if the Patriots are going to extend their streak of 190+ yard rushing performances, they’ll need the Miami Dolphins to respect and fear Lewis’ and Burkhead’s ability to catch out of the backfield because that will allow the Patriots offensive line to create space in the trenches.