The season-ending knee injury to Dion Lewis stings in more ways than one.
Personally, you feel for the kid. He finally found his chance to thrive after bouncing in and out of the NFL for four seasons, only to see his breakout season end with one swift, non-contact tear of his ACL.
And football-wise, it won't be easy for the Patriots to replace everything Lewis brings to the table.
He was signed to compete for the third-down pass catching role, and he became so much more for the Patriots, as we saw in Sunday's 27-10 victory over Washington.
Lewis had maybe the best pure moves Patriots fans have ever seen, forcing 40 missed tackles on his 85 touches this season and earning the highest "elusive rating" ever given out by the stats website Pro Football Focus. He showed them off again on the second play of Sunday's game, juking linebacker Keenan Robinson out of his shoes on an 8-yard gain.
Lewis is only 5 feet 8 inches tall and 195 pounds, but could run between the tackles as well as beat defenders to the edge. He rushed for 25 yards on his first three carries of the day against Washington, and the race was on.
Lewis had home run ability any time he touched the ball. Against the Dolphins, he converted a third-and-16 screen pass, and against Washington took a second-and-20 screen pass for 15 yards . . .
. . . and almost scored on another screen pass on third-and-goal from the 11.
He was dangerous as a receiver, often lining up wide, and he caught 36 passes for 388 yards and two touchdowns. He should've had another one Sunday, but dropped a 33-yarder because the sun was in his eyes.
And he was a surprisingly good pass blocker. Sunday, he absolutely destroyed Robinson on a blitz, giving Tom Brady enough time to find Danny Amendola to convert a third-and-7 pass.
Lewis finishes the season with 622 total yards (18 percent of the Patriots' total), third on the team behind Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman. Potential replacements James White and Brandon Bolden are nice players, but there aren't many running backs in the NFL who are as well-rounded as Lewis was.
Other observations after rewatching Sunday's win:
When the Patriots had the ball
■ Interestingly, the Patriots didn’t hesitate to use Bolden a lot in the fourth quarter — perhaps as a way to get him up to speed with the offense. They designed three straight plays for him — a swing pass out of the backfield that fell incomplete, a 12-yard run on second and 20, and an 18-yard touchdown pass when he was lined up 1-on-1 wide with Perry Riley in coverage. On the next series, Bolden caught an 8-yard pass on third and 4, then later a 1-yard screen pass on third and 10. The Patriots moved Bolden, force fed him the football, and used him in pass protection, just like they would use Lewis.
■ Other than the injury, this game was all about the Patriots’ offensive line, which was perilously thin due to injuries. At this point you are well aware Cameron Fleming played left tackle for the first time, and Bryan Stork played right tackle for the first time, once Sebastian Vollmer left the game with a head injury. Stork actually played center on LeGarrette Blount’s 5-yard touchdown run, played a series at left guard, then moved to right tackle when Vollmer went down.
Stork was naturally a little out of sorts at right tackle, especially given that it was his first game all season, at any position. When Blount was stuffed on third and goal, Stork looked like he mistakenly blocked the linebacker instead of picking up Stephen Paea, who stopped Blount in the backfield.
Stork was also busted for holding on the first play of the next drive. But he was steady at right tackle, getting some help from Mike Williams and Bolden in pass protection, and paving the way for several big runs on the right side. The Patriots had a good success running behind Josh Kline and Stork on the right side, with those two paving the way for a big third-and-1 pickup when everyone knew the Patriots were going to run. Stork, Kline, and Gronkowski also did a great job sealing off a wall on Bolden's 12-yard run.
■ The overall scorecard: Kline and David Andrews each allowed two pressures and a run stuff; Fleming and Vollmer allowed a pressure each; Stork allowed a run stuff on a miscommunication, and Shaq Mason allowed the only QB hit of the day, to Jason Hatcher. But those numbers are out of 80 snaps, so overall it was an excellent day on the offensive line.
■ Mason must have pulled through the line at least 15 times, and he and Kline consistently got out to the second level and delivered punishing blocks.
Andrews always seemed to be out front leading the charge on screen passes, as well. The Patriots' offensive line is much more athletic than in recent years, and Kline especially is really developing into a solid player.
The Patriots did an excellent job of getting "a hat on a hat," and the tight ends (Gronkowski, Williams, Scott Chandler) and wide receivers (Edelman, Amendola, Brandon LaFell) had an excellent blocking day as well.
Gronkowski stayed in to block again on a few pass plays, including LaFell's 48-yarder.
And Blount was a beast, breaking 10 tackles and gaining 81 of his 129 yards after contact. He broke five tackles alone on his 21-yard run.
The Patriots obviously used a lot of two tight end sets. Williams, the former offensive tackle, once again played more than Chandler (36 snaps to 25). Gronkowski was used in the backfield a lot, which helped him get a free release off the line of scrimmage. The Patriots also used Gronkowski and Williams on several "wham" blocks to help create a seal on inside handoffs.
■ The shaky offensive line setup had Brady getting the ball out of his hands quickly, with a lot of screens to Lewis and LaFell. Brady did a great job of throwing his receivers open (particularly the fourth-and-2 pass to Edelman, away from Robinson the linebacker), and knew how to get his receivers open. When Washington was in man coverage, Brady had his receivers run crossing routes all day. When Washington was in zone, Edelman would just settle in a soft spot of the defense and Brady would find him.
But Washington also did a good job of "sugaring" its pass rush — bringing six or seven guys up to the line and disguising the pass rushers. Brady simply never saw Robinson drop off the line of scrimmage, and threw the ball right to him at the goal line on his first-quarter interception.
■ There appeared to be two issues with concussions that were not spotted right away by the NFL’s concussion spotter up in the booth.
Edelman appeared to get a concussion test on the sideline in the first quarter after he took a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit. But Edelman stayed in the game after the hit, caught his touchdown pass, and then wasn't evaluated by Patriots medical personnel until he reached the sideline.
Vollmer possibly took a knee to the head from Trent Murphy midway through the second quarter, finished the drive, then suddenly was out of the lineup on the next drive. He was soon out of the game with a head injury. We don't know if it was a concussion, but that is how many NFL teams classify concussion injuries.
The NFL's concussion spotter in the booth now has the ability to stop the game if he sees anyone who could be showing concussive symptoms, but no timeout was called Sunday. The irony, of course, is many unofficially call the new medical timeout the "Julian Edelman rule" after Edelman was not taken out of the Super Bowl when he appeared to show concussive symptoms.
When Washington had the ball
■ Would love to see the PSI numbers of Washington’s footballs, because they bounced off the ‘Skins’ hands over and over. Washington had six legitimate drops on offense, by six players. Pierre Garcon’s drop was intercepted by Logan Ryan, Derek Carrier dropped a potential 40-yard gain early in the first quarter, and Jordan Reed, Matt Jones, Jamison Crowder and Chris Thompson each had butterfingers. Ryan Grant also fumbled away the onside kick, and Andre Roberts muffed a kickoff, picking the ball up but getting tackled at the 13.
■ Garcon did have four catches for 70 yards, but Ryan hung tight with him all day and had a couple of nice pass breakups, including a crucial one on fourth and 11. Malcolm Butler completely shut down DeSean Jackson, who is clearly rusty after sitting out seven weeks with a hamstring injury, and Patrick Chung did a really nice job on Reed, knocking away a couple of passes. Chung’s 1-on-1 coverage this year has been shockingly good.
■ The Patriots liberally mixed in their zone coverage with man, and got creative with their blitzes, sending Butler and Devin McCourty after Kirk Cousins at one point. McCourty, who almost never blitzed in his first five seasons, blitzed for the second week in a row. He got a sack last week, and only a quarterback pressure this time.
■ It wasn’t the best pass-rushing day for the Patriots, who clearly missed Jamie Collins and Jabaal Sheard. Linebacker Jonathan Freeny played 57 of 58 snaps in Collins’s place and blitzed a lot, but was rarely effective in getting to the quarterback. Chandler Jones got the lone sack of the day, blowing right around right tackle Morgan Moses, who looked like he didn’t hear the snap count and was a beat late getting off the line. Dominique Easley had a couple of nice pressures up the middle and is starting to really blossom into an impact interior pass rusher. Akiem Hicks absolutely destroyed guard Brandon Scherff, Washington’s first-round pick, to pressure Cousins into an incompletion.
■ Defensive tackle Alan Branch had a monster game in run support and has done an excellent job of replacing Vince Wilfork.
Officially, Branch only had one solo tackle and one assist, but that doesn't properly account for his impact. He got the initial backfield penetration that led to a run stuff for Jones, he again got the penetration that led to a run stuff for Rob Ninkovich, then got two on his own, the latter of which he forced a fumble on third and 2 and ended any hope of a Washington comeback.
■ Washington only kept five players up on the line of scrimmage for kickoffs, whereas most teams have at least six. So the Patriots had a 5-on-3 advantage on either side of the field for an onside kick, and they capitalized right away. It’s also now something every Patriots opponent must think about for the remainder of the season.