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How the Patriots’ use of four running backs keeps defenses guessing

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels (right) has had no problems finding time for running backs (from left) Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, and Mike Gillislee, along with James White.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels (right) has had no problems finding time for running backs (from left) Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, and Mike Gillislee, along with James White.(Jim davis/Globe Staff)

The weekend is the perfect time to catch up with the “Season Ticket” podcast

FOXBOROUGH — Tom Brady has long been responsible for the erratic sleep habits of defensive coordinators across the NFL. Insomnia and nightmares are just part of the deal when preparing to face the Patriots quarterback.

This season, however, New England is giving opposing coaches another reason to reach for the melatonin — a loaded stable of running backs.

The Patriots have taken the running back by committee approach to new heights — employing four guys with varying skillsets to attack defenses and keep coaches guessing.

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Sunday’s win over Atlanta was the latest example of New England’s ability to use its personnel to exploit matchups and keep fresh legs on the field.

Dion Lewis, Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead, and James White each received at least seven touches in the game. They combined for 31 carries for 157 yards and 7 catches for 45 yards.

“We’ve got so many versatile backs and it was kind of cool to see us all being used in our own, unique special ways, whether that was on special teams, passing game,’’ said Burkhead, who had six carries for 31 yards and one catch for 11 yards. “It’s neat to be a part of that. We compete with one another but also root each other on. We bond so well together when we’re out there on the field and we experience that together and we enjoy it.’’

Through seven games the group has rushed for 715 yards and collected another 388 receiving yards.

While Brady always will be the focal point of this offense, he’s more than happy to share the wealth in the name of balance.

“I have a lot of confidence in those guys running the ball [and] catching it,’’ he said this week.

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Because the Patriots’ offense varies heavily from week to week (“We’re very much a game-plan team, and we’ll keep being that,’’ said Brady) having personnel flexibility is a must. All four backs have at least one start under their belt.

Gillislee is the biggest of the bunch. He’s a one-cut runner with good power and deceptive speed. Lewis is the quickest of the group. He has good vision and a nifty set of moves. He also runs with underrated power and toughness.

White is one of the best receiving backs in the league. He has good vision and shiftiness and is an excellent third down player because of his ability to make the big play as well being adept at handling blitz pickup. Burkhead is the most versatile of the quartet. He has nice first step, good hands, and great instincts.

James White continued to torment the Falcons, catching a TD pass in the Patriots’ 23-7 win last week.
James White continued to torment the Falcons, catching a TD pass in the Patriots’ 23-7 win last week.(Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

“It’s always a plus to have multiple backs, especially when they can do multiple things. It helps the offensive coordinator to be able to game plan against the other defenses and it gives you very unique looks that defenses have to prepare for,’’ said Burkhead. “Any time you have guys that can do multiple things for your offense it’s going to be a good thing.’’

While their versatility definitely is a plus when Josh McDaniels is charting his course of attack during the week, the Patriots offensive coordinator said it also helps when things need to be altered on the fly as game situations dictate.

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“They’re all capable of helping us move the ball and that’s the most important thing that we feel about our group of backs,’’ McDaniels said this week when asked about carving out roles for everybody. “There’s some [decisions] that are maybe down and distance related. There’s others that are maybe packages that certain guys practice more than others during the course of the week and then at times you just let a guy try to take a series and get himself into rhythm. . . . It’s not as cut and dry as just divvying it up equally or ‘this series it’s this guy only’ or what have you.’’

While every back wants his touches, Burkhead said jealousy and envy don’t exist among this quartet.

“Just being a team player. Keep that mind-set, working on it and not being selfish,’’ said Burkhead, who returned to action last week after missing four weeks with a rib injury. “Being the guy that no matter what your role is, no matter what they ask you to do, you do it to the best of your ability and [you do] whatever helps the team win. That’s what you’ve got to keep in your mind and keep working on daily to make sure that’s what your doing.’’

After missing time to injury, Rex Burkhead made his presence felt against the Falcons.
After missing time to injury, Rex Burkhead made his presence felt against the Falcons.(Barry Chin/Globe Staff)

Jim McBride can be reached at james.mcbride@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.