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The Film Room: The New England Patriots’ Running Backs

Matt Weston takes a deep look at the Patriots’ running back depth chart.

New England Patriots vs New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The New England Patriots’ receiving group is an infirmary of the hobbled and moral supporters whose playing status depends on how they feel Sunday morning. Julian Edelman tore his ACL against the Detroit Lions in the preseason and is out for the year. Malcolm Mitchell is on injured reserve with a knee injury. Danny Amendola has returned to practice after suffering an early season concussion. Rob Gronkowski has a pickled exoskeleton and moves like Frankenstein with a refrigerator attached to his back. Chris Hogan’s knee hurts. None of this really matters. The Patriots’ offense has started the year by scoring 63 points in two games. They are fifth in offensive DVOA.

For most teams, a hobbled receiving corps like New England’s would be devastating. The quarterback would be forced to lock onto his only talented receiver, praying he’d get open, or he’s have to drop the ball down to middling athletes. They would check the days on the calendar, hoping that enough will add up before they reach the date with the red circle swirled around it, marking when everyone will be healthy again. For the Patriots, it’s just a rabbit spun underneath their tires and flipped into a moonlit sky.

This past offseason, New England diversified their backfield and got better by losing the one-dimensional LeGarette Blount and his 18 touchdowns. They re-signed Super Bowl hero and third down extraordinaire James White to a two-year, $12 million contract. They replaced Blount’s goal line production with an even better back in Mike Gillislee, who ended up in New England after Buffalo failed to match his two-year, $6.4 million offer sheet. The Patriots also signed former Bengals running back Rex Burkhead in free agency to a one-year, $3.15 million deal. And Dion Lewis is still there.

As a result, the Patriots have one of the most diverse backfields in the NFL. They can run the ball up the middle with crushing power runs, get the ball outside with tosses or outside zone plays, attack linebackers in the quick passing game by lining up running backs at wide receiver, and slice defenses in the open field with screen passes. Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis, and James White each have unique skill sets to make this offense move no matter what is going on with the receiver position. Already, they have produced. As a group, New England’s running backs have 180 receiving yards on 18 catches and 179 rushing yards on 56 carries. Each one picks up yards in his own specific and defined way.

Mike Gillislee

In 2016, the Buffalo Bills had the best rushing attack in the NFL. Their creative power run scheme that used LeSean McCoy, Gillislee, and Tygod Taylor in combination with pulling linemen and tight formations was devastating. In this scheme, on a per play basis, Gillislee was the best back in football. He led the NFL in yards per carry with 5.7, DVOA at 44.9%, and a success rate at 66%. He had 577 yards and 8 touchdowns on just 101 carries. The Patriots added this for only an average of $3.2 million a season. The NFL has to stop letting the Patriots do things like this.

Gillislee has a defined role in New England. He’s the goal line back to replace Blount and an inside power runner to pair with fullback Mike Develin, who has the ability to run outside zone plays as well. He’s power, strength, and vision all splashed into one being.

In the season opener, Gillislee had three touchdowns against the Kansas City Chiefs. He added one more against the Saints. Last season Blount was the only Patriots running back to record a regular season rushing touchdown. Now that duty has gone to Gillislee.

On Gillislee’s first touchdown that counted, the Patriots had three tight ends and a fullback in. They ran a lead play with fullback Develin and his CTE-soaked cowboy collar leading the way. The key to this play is the first double team. The playside ‘ace’ has to move the defensive tackle off the ball. If there is any stagnation, there’s nowhere to run. From there, Develin blocks the playside linebacker and Gillislee follows.

From a running back’s perspective, goal line runs are predominantly about running strength. It’s about running vertically, hitting the hole low, and the feet never stopping. But vision plays a crucial role in it as well. Not all blocks are going to perfect. The back has to be able to find glints of light under all that rubble. Gillislee does exactly that on this play.

The playside ‘Ace’ devours the defensive tackle, but the rest of the playside blocks go nowhere. They are sitting. It’s clogged up. There is a safety unblocked on the edge. Center David Andrews is able to lunge at Derrick Johnson (#56). The left guard, Joe Thuney hooks the defensive tackle. The hole is created from a different spot. Gillislee immediately reacts and cuts back, lowering his shoulder through a missile like Eric Berry to score.

Gillislee has the power to complete the runs that don’t need vision, too. He can be the great brute. On this touchdown he goes through two tackles to score. Pay special attention to his feet here. They never stop moving as he forces his way in.

Gillislee is more than just a power back. His skills translate to the rest of the downs as well. That same power is just as despicable with Develin leading the way in front of him on first and ten, and that same vision is vital when running outside zone plays. Currently, he is leading the team with 33 carries, has picked up 114 yards, and has a DVOA of 13.7% (9th) because of all those first downs and touchdowns.

On most first and second down run plays, it’s Gillislee+Develin=BFF4EVA. New England will run lead, outside zone, counter, and sweeps all with Develin plowing the snow for Gillislee to drive through. These plays allow New England’s offensive line to focus on the first level because they have an extra blocker focused solely on the linebacker. It turns one inside double team into a solo block for a lineman, and a Develin lead that puts the linebacker at a disadvantage.

The best play New England runs is the outside zone with Develin leading. The right tackle and right guard would usually double the defensive end to the playside linebacker. But with Develin here, the guard will hook back and block the middle linebacker unless the defensive end shoots inside. Develin has the playside linebacker. The center is reaching the defensive tackle. The backside guard and tackle have a quick double team to take care of the defensive tackle and backside linebacker.

The right tackle drives the defender horizontally. The center, Andrews, is unable to reach the outside shoulder and ends up doing the same. Develin patiently waits for right guard Shaq Mason to leave for the second level. Once he does, Develin drops his shoulder and clears out the hole. After his block is made, Gillislee cuts behind it to the ‘B’ gap. As he runs through the hole, he gets grabbed by Tyeler Davison’s (#95) left arm, which soaks into two other defenders. Gillislee takes all three of these defenders with him until the safety finishes him off.

The Patriots’ offense has so many options. They have a great quick passing game and screen game. They should have a great deep pass game once Brady and Brandin Cooks figure each other out, and they have one of the best power run games to boot. It’s obscene how many different choices they have. Because of the combination of New England’s great blocking chemistry, Develin’s lead blocks, and Gillislee’s skills, the Patriots can run the ball in ways spread passing teams usually can’t.

So far Gillislee hasn’t been used in the passing game at all. Last season with Buffalo, he only had nine receptions on eleven targets, but picked up 50 receiving yards. He’s been targeted zero times in two games this season. But he has shown nice hands in the past and has tackle breaking ability. This is uncharted territory that may end up as another name on the map before the season is over.

Mike Gillislee is too damn good for what the Patriots signed him for. Brady and Belichick are the reasons why New England are able to stay at the top of the NFL year after year, but smart transactions like this, taking advantage of the undervalued and maximizing their strengths through scheme, is another enormous reason why the Bills are the Bills and the Patriots are the Patriots. Gillislee is going to have like 20 touchdowns this year and everyone else is going to feel so stupid—if they don’t already.

James White

I lost almost $500 because of James White after his second half ruined my November Atlanta Falcons Super Bowl bet that I doubled down on, but he’s so good on third downs that material worth doesn’t affect the affinity I have for him. White plays predominantly on third downs and is spectacular in this situation. In 2016, White had 270 yards on third down, 233 receiving and 37 rushing. He caught 22 passes and had 8 rushing attempts. This season, he is being used the same way. He’s the only running back with a third down target and has picked up 30 receiving yards on six targets.

This play came on 3rd and 5 with 13:54 left in the first quarter against New Orleans. New England has an empty backfield with five wide receivers spread out. James White is lined up as the widest receiver on the left side. He is motioned closer to the inside receiver in a stacked formation. From there he curls inside and bounces back outside on a pivot route against man coverage. Once he plants, he loses the cornerback and is hit in stride to the sideline with plenty of empty space to convert the third down.

The behind view shows one reason why the Patriots’ offense works so well. Most of the time, their running backs are dump-offs and safety blankets for Brady. He processes the game so quickly and makes his reads in a span of seconds. If everything is covered, he instantly drops it off. For most teams, these checkdowns would be two yard gains that lead to punts. New England turns them into first downs.

Here Cameron Jordan (#94) is lined up over the center against Andrews. He smacks his head down and swims over the top to create pressure right away. Brady reads from deep to short and gets the pass off right when he gets hit. Because of their running backs and quick passes like this in general, New England can counteract the biggest threat to their offense, interior pressure.

The third down conversions aren’t limited through just the air, either. White is a great running back on the ground. His cuts are precise and spectacular. On this conversion against Kansas City, the Patriots are running a simple inside zone play on third and seven. Kansas City is in a dime defense with their rushers spread wide, creating natural running lanes.

The first double team between the center and guard is perfect. Behind that block, White digs his foot in and cuts around it, gliding when he does it. Then he gets skinny through the hole to slip between the receiver’s block. Now he’s in the second level and makes a tackle miss with another cut. He finally goes down ten yards later.

In addition to third down, the Patriots love to use White on screens and the occasional first and second down running play. These plays are all about getting White into space and putting his tackle breaking ability to use.

Earlier I lied when I said the Patriots only have four running backs. They also love to get their wide receivers in on some hot run action. Through two games, Chris Hogan has three carries. Brandin Cooks has two. Even the recently added Phillip Dorsett has one. They love to motion wide receivers to the back field to run jet sweeps or fake it to set up other plays.

The Patriots turn simple jet sweeps to Dorsett like this one for seven yards.

To set up screens that pick up 20+ yards. White sells this play perfectly. He fakes the hand-off and then sits in the ‘B’ gap. The Saints’ linebackers follow the sprinting wide receiver and get pulled to the left. When White seeps out to the right to catch the screen, he has three blockers in front of him. He does the rest by cutting past the unblocked defensive back and running past another tackle.

His ability to cover this much ground when he cuts while not losing any speed is what makes White such a dynamic back. Even on inside zone runs, he can use this same ability to get around the first level and into the second.

Of the Patriots’ running backs, White is the most complete. He can run the ball inside on early downs, catch passes as a wide receiver, abuse front sevens in the screen game, and he is a demon on third downs. He’s a perfect back for the postmodern NFL we see today.

Rex Burkhead

Burkhead came to New England through a similar mode of transportation as Gillislee. After breaking out during a hopeless Cincinnati season where he had 344 yards on 74 carries, a DVOA of 42%, and a 163 DYAR while catching 17 of his 20 targets for 145 yards, the Patriots snatched him up on one of those smart one-year contracts. His role is a combination of Gillslee and White. He can play receiver and catch passes out of the backfield on third down. He can run the ball as long as it isn’t short yardage. The Pats got themselves a man who can kind of do both.

When running the ball, Burkhead is primarily used on outside zone runs. On these plays, Burkhead is always looking to cut outside. He thinks cutting back inside the tackles is icky. The key for him in the run game is for the edge blocker to reach the outside shoulder and turn the defender inside. When this block is made, Burkhead is a fun runner. When he is forced to muck it up and create something out of nothing, he’s dull.

This is the usual outside zone play, the one without a fullback helping out. Blockers create double teams naturally by flowing to the gap over playside.

Blocking for Burkhead on the edge is Rob Gronkowski on Eric Berry (#29) and Nate Solder on Dee Ford (#55). Berry was incredible at covering Gronk in this game, but when you follow him around the entire game, these are the troubles you run into. Gronkowski easily turns Berry inside and walls him off from the play. Solder hits Ford square on and gets his hands inside to stick to this block. Burkhead uses his great speed to turn the corner and soak up all the empty space he can.

The passing game is where the Pats have used Burkhead as a mismatch the most. They have really tried to throw to him downfield by getting him matched up one on one against linebackers. They especially love the matchup of Burkhead against linebackers in man coverage. In the first game against Kansas City, New England took two shots down field in this exact situation, but they just missed.

The first was a wheel route that probably should have been a pass interference penalty. Burkhead subtly cuts wide to create separation and gets the linebacker to chase with his back to the ball.

The second motioned Burkhead out wide. Derrick Johnson (#56) had some idea what was coming. He played off-man coverage, and Burkhead wasn’t able to create much separation as a result. Brady tossed it over there anyways in a designed play attempt. If Burkhead was able to get his second hand up, it could have still ended up as a score.

These attempts didn’t hit but still almost worked against Kansas City. Against New Orleans, the play design ended with results. Lined up to the left of Tom Brady in the shotgun, Burkhead motioned out to the right slot. The Saints’ rookie linebacker followed him out there. New England’s goal to get Burkhead matched up one on one against the linebacker was a success.

With one safety deep, Brady looks left to pull him. The safety ends up crashing down on Gronk, who’s running a seven yard drag route out of the slot. This removes the second defender from Burkhead.

Burkhead cuts right to create separation just like the wheel route earlier and outruns the linebacker from there. Brady lofts a graceful pass to him that of course hits him in stride.

In the Patriots’ offense, Burkhead is a perfect tool against man coverage. By using motion, New England can get him against linebackers and allow him to run past them. He’s a counter to heavier boxes and blitzes. Even though he came to New England similar to Gillislee, he offers an entirely different skill set, another niche for a team that loves to attack specific matchups.

Dion Lewis

As of right now, Lewis is the lone man voyaging down empty neighborhood streets, peeking through blinds of family dinners and open floor plans. Like White and Burkhead, he too is a pass catcher and tackle breaker. On any other team in the NFL, Lewis would be a second running back, but here in New England he is currently RB4. If anything terrible happens, he will step in and play at a similar level as the other backs ahead of him.

Lewis’s best skill is breaking tackles. As long as he has space, he can shift, cut, and make defenders look like they have one leg longer than the other. He’s short and squatty. In the box, he can shift from one hole to the other, and he has the pad level to get through meek tackles. Lewis breaks three tackles through the clutter on this power run play to the left.

Like White and Burkhead, New England will split Lewis out wide and toss him the ball.

Already into this young season, Lewis is going to be called upon. Burkead is out for tomorrow’s game against the Texans. Lewis is going to step in and do similar things. It’s going to be like Burkhead was never gone at all.

Injuries that the Patriots have sufferedand are currently suffering through would be a disaster for most offenses in the NFL. In New England, it doesn’t matter, and it’s not just because of Brady and Belichick. It’s because they have an offense equipped with four running backs who can act as Brady’s safety blanket and make big plays down field in the pass game, continually churning yards on the ground in a variety of ways. In a game of attrition, depth is vital. The Patriots have exactly that with a backfield that will keep this offense rocking even without players like Edelman.