FOXBOROUGH — Mike Gillislee’s first regular-season carry as a Patriot produced the same result as his first preseason rush: a touchdown.
Less than three minutes into New England’s 42-27 loss to Kansas City on Thursday night, Gillislee entered the game with the ball on the Chiefs’ 2-yard line. In a goal-line formation, he took the handoff and rumbled into the end zone to produce the first points of the NFL season.
This has become a recurring practice for Gillislee, a 219-pound bruiser brought to New England for this very reason. In April, the Patriots signed the former Bill to a two-year, $6.4 million deal, the most expensive contract for a Patriots running back since 2010.
One game in, it seems he’s worth every penny. His first game as a Patriot was one of the best of his career as he ran 15 times for 45 yards and a career-high three touchdowns.
With 7:27 left in the second quarter, Gillislee punched in another touchdown. This time, he met Chiefs linebacker Ramik Wilson before barreling into the end zone from the 2.
Gillislee wasn’t done yet. After he was stuffed at the goal line in the third quarter, coach Bill Belichick called his number on the ensuing play and he bounced off Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson before lunging into the end zone for a 1-yard TD.
Back on the first day of training camp, running backs coach Ivan Fears issued a challenge to his group, comprised mostly of multipurpose backs.
“We have enough guys who can play finesse football,” Fears said. “Somebody’s got to play power football for us, and we have to find out who is going to do that.”
He may have found his answer.
Gillislee’s outstanding debut was the culmination of a productive preseason, though a limited one because of a nagging hamstring injury.
On the first day of full pads, Gillislee earned the first two goal-line carries, punching both of them in for touchdowns. One month later, he found the end zone on his first carry of his preseason debut.
Gillislee was acquired to help replace LeGarrette Blount, the 250-pound bruiser who punched in a league-leading 18 rushing touchdowns in 2016. Gillislee’s frame hardly compares with Blount’s refrigerator frame, but his ability to hit a hole and punish defenders with low pad level made him an attractive acquisition.
Last year, Gillislee scored on nearly 64 percent of his rushes inside the 10-yard line, which ranked as the best in the NFL. He also led the league with 5.7 yards per carry, showing his ability to run effectively outside of short-yardage situations.
Gillislee was much better than Blount, regarded as one of the league’s premier short-yardage rushers, in the trenches last season.
Gillislee averaged 4.7 yards per carry against stacked fronts of at least eight defenders in the box, while Blount averaged only 1.2 yards. Gillislee also produced 5.8 yards per carry against seven-man fronts, as opposed to Blount’s 4 yards per carry.
It’s worth noting that while Gillislee found success near the goal line on Thursday night, he was largely contained throughout the game. Take away his longest rush of 16 yards and Gillislee averaged only 2 yards per carry.
But his performance provided a silver lining in a disappointing loss.
“Mike ran really hard,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “We’re going to need that all season from him.”