HOUSTON — For the first time since Aug. 24, 2012, the Patriots’ offense on Saturday took the field for a preseason game with tight end Rob Gronkowski in the lineup.
For the first two drives against the Houston Texans, the offensive stars aligned at NRG Stadium, including Gronkowski, quarterback Tom Brady, and receivers Julian Edelman and Brandin Cooks.
But it was a new face, former Bengals running back Rex Burkhead, who was the featured weapon.
Of the 16 snaps the starters logged during the first two possessions, Burkhead touched the ball 10 times, including six straight plays during the second drive.
On his first handoff, Burkhead burst through a hole near the line of scrimmage before moving laterally to gain 8 yards. The run was his longest of the night. None of his subsequent six rushes eclipsed more than 4 yards against Houston’s elite front seven.
But after a six-play, 17-yard opening drive, Burkhead abused the Texans linebackers in coverage on the ensuing possession. Brady threw for 56 yards on the second drive, 50 of which came on three completions to Burkhead.
The 27-year-old capped the drive with a 22-yard touchdown reception. The Patriots receivers streaked toward the end zone, clearing the middle of the field for Burkhead. He cut past rookie Texans linebacker Zach Cunningham on an option route out of the backfield, and Brady hit Burkhead in stride before he darted into the end zone untouched.
“It was a great play,” Brady said. “He had a one-on-one matchup with the linebacker they had in coverage and he made a really good move to the out, and then broke across to space. I knew there was a lot of space in there if he could make the catch. He made a great catch and obviously a good run. It was a big play.”
The Patriots signed Burkhead to a one-year deal in March, adding another multipurpose player to a versatile core of New England running backs that includes James White, Dion Lewis, Brandon Bolden, and newly acquired Mike Gillislee.
Burkhead made only one start in his four years with the Bengals. He was buried on the depth chart behind Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, primarily serving as a third-down back. Last season was Burkhead’s best, when he accumulated 489 total yards with two touchdowns.
Early in training camp, Gillislee was a popular choice to assume the starting role after LeGarrette Blount signed a one-year deal with the Eagles. Gillislee earned the first two goal-line rushes during full-contact drills, turning both into touchdowns on physical runs up the middle. The former Bill rushed for eight touchdowns last season and led the league with 5.7 yards per carry.
But Gillislee hasn’t practiced in nearly two weeks because of a hamstring injury. Burkhead has taken advantage of increased reps, most notably on Saturday night.
“I was going to be ready for whatever occurred or happen,” Burkhead said. “A lot of times things can change pretty fast, so whatever is thrown my way, I was hoping to be ready for it.”
The running back competition has been one of the more intriguing battles of camp, despite Gillislee’s recent absence. The Patriots haven’t featured one running back in some time, but they have increasingly utilized an effective running game. Last season, New England finished seventh in the NFL with 1,872 rushing yards and ranked third with 482 rushing attempts.
The Patriots are deeper and more versatile at the position this year, and Burkhead is a big reason why.
“We have a lot of versatility, that’s for sure,” Burkhead said. “The key is putting it together and making sure we are all on the same page. Because if we are not, then talent means nothing. But we definitely have it, and as long as we stick together and try not to be selfish about things, then the sky is the limit.”