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Film room: Breaking down James White’s role in the Patriots passing game

Patriots running back James White is on pace to break records catching the ball this season.

NFL: New England Patriots at Chicago Bears Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Patriots fans love to talk about James White, and rightfully so. The fifth-year running back went from being buried on the depth chart to not only a reliable offensive weapon, but also a Super Bowl hero. After impressive showings in memorable games, racking up multiple 10-plus reception outings, the football world is buzzing about White – the running back and the receiver.

White is already off to a career start catching the ball in 2018. With 45 receptions just six games into the season and a 24.4 percent share of New England’s targets, White is on pace for quite a historic season:

Although keeping the pace for 103 catches may prove too difficult, it’s likely White will break a 32-year-old Patriots record: Tony Collins’ 77 receptions by a running back in a season. White’s current reception and target totals are also current team-highs, nearly surpassing the combined totals for Rob Gronkowski and Chris Hogan.

Any given week, White’s route chart could appear entirely different. One week it could look like a receiver’s, with wide alignment for curls and slot-outs, or it could look like a running back’s, full of swing and flat routes.

Alignment is just the first piece of how White provides advantages in the passing game.

Stats by Alignment

Alignment # of Routes Targets Receptions Yards
Alignment # of Routes Targets Receptions Yards
Backfield 121 48 36 322
Slot 23 8 5 28
Wide 25 6 4 30

Although he may be aligned anywhere or motioned pre-snap, most of White’s production is still coming from the backfield. Given the amount of snaps White has seen (53.8 percent) in comparison to the next closest backs – FB James Develin (33.4 percent) and Sony Michel (29.2 percent) – it’s not surprising that he is placed in the backfield often.

But, White’s versatility goes beyond the typical box-score statistics. His ability to align inside or out wide forces defenses to show their hand or adapt their structure. Through pre-snap motions, the Patriots offense often uses White and others to tip coverages or swing numbers in their favor.

ESPN’s NFL Matchup produced a segment showing just a few examples of how New England recognizes and acts on their advantages with White.

Defenses adjust to the Patriots’ movements and manipulations before the snap, often showing the offense where mismatches are present (e.g. White on a hopeless linebacker). The simple changes in seconds can indicate man- or zone-coverage and even alert Tom Brady to a more effective play.

With alignment before the snap known, White’s route chart shows us how he’s being used during the play.

Stats by Route

Route # of Routes Targets REC-YD-TD
Route # of Routes Targets REC-YD-TD
Option 25 8 6-46-1
Flat 25 4 3-21-1
Out 21 8 4-16-0
Sit 18 3 2-15-0
Screen 16 13 10-102-1
Swing 16 8 7-67-0
Curl/Comeback 16 3 3-28-0
Angle 6 5 5-38-1
Wheel 6 3 1-10-1

Providing a ‘security blanket’ as the team’s most reliable target, White has found success showcasing his soft hands and footwork recently on more increasingly used angle and out routes. Yet, the majority of his routes – option, flat, and sit routes – often give Brady a quick read against unprepared defenses.

New England’s fondness of option routes is well known around the league. Brady’s rapport and timing with receivers allows them to determine routes post-snap and find the open space. Receivers like Julian Edelman and Wes Welker have all eaten up yardage with the option route.

White runs option routes with no difficulty or uncertainty. Breaking down in front of defenders, he gains separation by recognizing the defensive coverage and making a choice based off that coverage: running in or out.

Brady and White’s strong connection and high football IQs make the option route consistently effective, giving White the best chance to get open quickly in weakly defended spaces.

Similarly, New England has used swing routes often the past few weeks to gain quick yards with White isolated against defenders (see: White against Kansas City and Indianapolis). Aided by White’s yards-after-catch skills, the Patriot offense has earned quick and easy first downs through weak side swing routes, as shown in the NFL Matchup clip and below.

Swings, flat routes and screens offer glimpses into White’s success in the open field. He might not have the breakaway speed of Cordarrelle Patterson, or the sudden burst of Michel, but there are few players that can be trusted after the catch like James “Sweet Feet” White.

Combining White’s open-field prowess with a strengthening offensive line and designed pre-snap advantages, the Patriot offense can run, and pass, through White confidently. And although screens were declared an issue for New England a season ago, the offense has had little problems in that area this season (10rec-102yd-1td!).

Given White’s natural skills as a receiver, his route tree expands and he becomes another threat for defensive backs. Better ‘passing backs’ in today’s league get this treatment, as long as they’re not hindered by play calling, and it has proved lethal at times to defenses.

White’s usage proves to be far more than just stretching defenses horizontally on dump-offs. While he may not be running many seam routes or verticals each week, from running curls aligned wide to slot-outs and pick-wheel concepts, White is an essential piece of Josh McDaniels’ offense.

White is capable of being used as the primary read for certain concepts whether he be aligned in the backfield or split-out. Clever play designs can be centered around White’s receiving abilities and the defense’s weaknesses. His corner touchdown reception against Miami is the only proof needed.

Despite all the conversations of devaluing running backs and their interchangeability, clearly a running back’s impact on the passing game cannot be ignored. And, through a mixture of skill and scheme creativity, White has represented the value of effectively using running backs while passing.

New England has been blessed with past seasons of greatness from their top receiving backs, and White continues to strengthen his case for being the best version. White’s versatility in not only his alignment, but also his route running and YAC abilities, make him a threat for any defense and a weapon for the Patriots.