FOXBOROUGH — The 66,829 fans at Gillette Stadium on Sunday were there to cheer on Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski.
The 52 players on the Patriots’ sideline were cheering for someone else — Joey Iosefa.
“It was really, really exciting to see him go out there today, run the ball a little bit, run hard,” safety Duron Harmon said after the Patriots’ 33-16 win over the Titans. “I was really cheering for him.”
The Patriots’ win wasn’t pretty, and may prove costly if the injuries to Danny Amendola, Dont’a Hightower, and Patrick Chung further deplete a team that is already ravaged. But it opened our eyes to Iosefa, the latest guy the Patriots found off the scrap heap, plugged into the lineup, and had a productive game.
Iosefa was signed from the practice squad on Saturday to take LeGarrette Blount’s spot on the roster, and in his first NFL game, rushed 14 times for 51 yards to help the Patriots grind out the win. Iosefa (pronounced Yo-SE-fa) didn’t get into the end zone, but did have perhaps the highlight of the day when he flattened Titans cornerback Coty Sensabaugh like roadkill and rumbled for 15 yards.
Iosefa is listed at 6 feet and 245 pounds, and his teammates can sympathize with Sensabaugh trying to bring him down.
“Oh, it’s hard, man, especially if he keeps his feet moving on contact,” said Patriots cornerback Leonard Johnson, who was teammates with Iosefa in Tampa Bay during training camp. “I went crazy, because I’m a Joey fan. Just proud of him.”
Iosefa rounds out a Patriots running back corps that doesn’t quite look like we expected it to at this point in the season, but still could have all the right pieces to help the Patriots make a deep playoff run.
James White continues to improve as the pass-catching back, showing great vision and patience on a 30-yard touchdown on a screen pass.
He doesn’t have the same shiftiness as Dion Lewis, but he had a team-high seven catches on Sunday for 71 yards, and should have had about 70 more if not for a questionable pass interference call on Keshawn Martin that negated a huge catch-and-run.
White’s Patriots career started slowly in his first season and a half, but he now has five touchdowns in his last five games (two rushing, three receiving), and is showing why the Patriots used a fourth-round pick on him last year.
“He’s gained a lot of trust from everybody just based on his performance, his consistency,” Tom Brady said. “And the touchdown run on the screen, I mean, from what I saw there wasn’t much there, and then he was so patient to see things open up and then took advantage when the hole finally did open, accelerated through there, and got in the end zone. So he’s been really productive in that role . . . Really great tribute to his hard work and commitment.”
And while White is the “lightning,” Brandon Bolden and Iosefa are proving that they can provide the “thunder” with Blount gone for the season. Bolden, listed at 220 pounds, churned out 51 tough yards on 16 carries last week against Houston, then added 36 yards on 10 carries against Tennessee. Bolden is kind of a hybrid between the two running back roles, with 12 catches for 145 yards and a touchdown this season as well.
Iosefa, meanwhile, might be a big key for the Patriots’ playoff run. The weather gets frightful in Foxborough each January, and even though Blount went down for the year, Iosefa still gives the Patriots a 245-pound tank to run the ball downhill and keep the chains moving.
“Oh, he’s a load, man. He runs through people and he’s really, really strong,” said Harmon, who has done one-on-one tackling drills with Iosefa after practice for the last month. When Harmon watched Iosefa flatten Sensabaugh, “I was like, ‘Woo, that’s a big boy right there.’ ”
Iosefa comes to the Patriots with a little baggage. A former five-year player at the University of Hawaii, Iosefa had foot injuries that forced him out of 11 games over his final two college seasons, and a drunken driving arrest last October that earned him a three-game suspension (he pleaded no contest to operation of a vehicle under the influence of an intoxicant and had his driver’s license suspended for a year).
The Buccaneers drafted him in the seventh round and cut him at the end of training camp before ever giving him a carry in a preseason game, and he played briefly for the Brooklyn Bolts of the Fall Experimental Football League before the Patriots signed him to the practice squad in October.
Iosefa, though, seems like just the type of guy Bill Belichick would love. He is a complete running back, with 2,218 rushing yards, 60 catches for 438 yards, and 24 touchdowns at Hawaii. He also lined up as the lead blocker on Sunday, an element that has been missing from the Patriots’ offense since James Develin broke his leg in the preseason. Iosefa is an excellent athlete, playing quarterback in high school and throwing two touchdown passes at Hawaii. He also played rugby, soccer, and volleyball at competitive levels.
And he’s young, hungry, and seems willing to do whatever it takes to stick in the NFL.
“He’s a grinder, hard-working kid.” Belichick said. “He’s gotten in a lot better shape since he’s been here, dropped a little weight, worked hard, obviously learned a new system, wasn’t here in training camp so he put in a lot of extra time, got in a lot of snaps on the practice field and kind of earned his way to get a chance out there today based on hard work and consistent play in practice and the opportunities that he’s had for us. It wasn’t perfect, but he did what we asked him to do and he made some tough yards.”
After the game, defensive tackle Alan Branch asked a Patriots clubhouse attendant to find Iosefa’s jersey out of the laundry. It was Iosefa’s first NFL game, and Branch wanted to buy the jersey for him as a keepsake.
Just another one of Iosefa’s 52 fans.
“I was thoroughly surprised, I’ll tell you that,” Branch said of his new teammate. “I knew he was a good running back but the way he hit the guy, that was a good hit.”