The New England Patriots running backs will be, or at least should be, a major focal point during Super Bowl LI. The Falcons defense struggles in run defense and in coverage of running backs and the Patriots have myriad backfield options.
One year after the Patriots were scraping the bottom of the barrel for retired players to serve as a feature back, LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis are healthy and running well, while James White put together a career season. They are ready to take on the Falcons, no matter who is asked to line up behind Tom Brady.
“We all can do things differently,” White said. “The coaches know how to put us in the right position to be effective on the football field. They know we’re not going to be put there every snap as running backs, so we just have to make the most of our opportunities, celebrate one another and have fun.”
Blount led the Patriots with a career-high 1,199 yards from scrimmage this regular season and an NFL-best 18 rushing touchdowns. White ranked second on the Patriots with 60 receptions and third in yards from scrimmage with 717. Lewis returned halfway through the season from his knee injury and settled in as the team’s feature back down the stretch. Each player has a distinct role in the offense and the Patriots are comfortable with all of them on the field.
"They determine their roles by what they do in practice,” RB coach Ivan Fears said. “I don't determine their roles. The way they practice, what they do in practice, how well they do it in practice, It tells you well, he's good at doing that, he's not good at that, maybe he should do that, maybe he shouldn't do that, we want to put our best out there all the time so we stick to the strong points of each guy and that determines what they do."
Lewis returned in week 11 and immediately ate into White’s playing time because Lewis offers more rushing ability. While White’s pasing targets have been pretty even in the 9 games splits with and without Lewis (47 targets vs 44), he is no longer asked to carry the football (28 attempts without Lewis, 12 attempts since Lewis’ return).
This shift in playing time could cause a rift in other locker rooms, but not in New England where every player is rooting for the other.
“We are a great group of guys,” Lewis said. “We are close and we love each other. You go to work and you love the people you want to be around and that is definitely the case with us. We are so close.”
“It’s a brotherhood,” Blount added. “It’s like a family here. We love each other and we always have each other’s backs. It is a resilient team, but we’re going to continue to do everything we can to put ourselves in a good situation.”
The bromance in the running back room hasn’t gone unnoticed by other players in the locker room, with QB Tom Brady noting that “if you look at the running backs, they don’t walk anywhere without being three inches from one another. They all laugh at the same time.”
Blount and Lewis will be tasked with running against the Falcons defense, while White will be called upon in the hurry-up attack in a Shane Vereen-type role that worked against Falcons head coach Dan Quinn when Quinn coached the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX.
“Everybody's got to do their job, everybody's got to prepare and be ready to play,” Fears said. “And when you do it that way, you're pretty good. Everybody is stepping up.”
Blount believes that Lewis will be the unsung hero in the Super Bowl ”for the simple fact that he overcame so much just to come back and be such an important part of this team.”
But while Lewis could be a major factor between the 20s, and Blount is likely to play in the red zone, each running back will have an opportunity to make a big play on the Falcons defense. The brotherhood will have to deliver.