Earlier this decade, the Patriots revolutionized offensive football by revolving their attack around two tight ends — Rob Gronkowski and He Who Shall Not Be Named.
This season, the Patriots again are innovators on offense. Now they’re revolving their attack around a dynamic stable of four running backs.
The quartet of Dion Lewis, James White, Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead has taken on added importance over the last few weeks, especially in Sunday’s 21-13 win over the Chargers. All four backs got plenty of chances to touch the ball, and for the most part were the only productive skill players on the Patriots’ offense. They combined for 45 of the Patriots’ 63 touches, and 258 of the team’s 414 yards.
Lewis: 30 snaps, 17 touches, 54 yards.
Burkhead: 27 snaps, 11 touches, 83 yards.
White: 20 snaps, six touches, 87 yards.
Gillislee: 13 snaps, 11 touches, 34 yards.
It marked the second straight game that all four backs handled the ball at least six times.
Some of this is by necessity — Julian Edelman is out, Danny Amendola, and Chris Hogan are battling through minor injuries, and Gronkowski looks a bit tentative (more on that below).
But a lot of it has to do with the versatility of the running back position and the skill sets of the players.
Like tight ends, running backs can play all over the formation. Lewis, Burkhead, and White lined up as receivers at various times against the Chargers.
Like tight ends, running backs are useful blockers. White was excellent in pass protection against the Chargers, and Lewis has shined in this role as well. Burkhead hasn’t been tested much in this area yet.
And Josh McDaniels can use them in a variety of ways (except for Gillislee, who isn’t much of a receiver). White and Burkhead were the Patriots’ two leading receivers on Sunday, combining for 12 catches for 153 yards. The Patriots’ best play of the day was the swing pass out of the backfield, which Tom Brady threw six times resulting in four first downs, including a third-and-11 conversion to White.
Brady only had three completions longer than 20 yards all day, but two of them went to the running backs.
They can send White, Lewis, or Burkhead deep on wheel routes. They can use them on quick slants, checkdowns, swing passes, or screens. They can run Lewis between the tackles, or surprise the defense with a draw play to White.
And they can use multiple running backs on the same play. The Patriots used their “Pony” package of White and Burkhead four times on Sunday, all on third down. Both can be used as blockers, and both can serve as checkdowns. Brady completed three passes on those plays, and converted two first downs.
Gronkowski, Amendola, Hogan, and Brandin Cooks will still get most of the attention from media and opposing defenses. But right now, they are complementary players. The Patriots’ offense revolves around their four running backs.
More observations after rewatching the tape:
When the Patriots had the ball
■ We watched the game trying to see if we could figure out why the Patriots struggled in the red zone. The Patriots scored a touchdown on just 1 of 4 red zone possessions, but it was really 1 of 3, since the last one came at the end of the game, and the Patriots were playing for a field goal by running the ball on third and 8. But they also had three drives fizzle at the 25-yard line.
Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be much of a common denominator. Excluding the final drive, the Patriots called five runs against 14 passes once they reached the 25, often running on first down and passing on second and third down. Otherwise, the drives were felled by the receivers not being able to get open, or the Chargers’ pass rush forcing Brady to throw the ball away, or Brady taking a sack, which happened twice. If anything, the receivers’ inability to get separation is likely the biggest concern moving forward.
CBS also showed a stat that the Patriots were converting just 22.2 percent of third-down opportunities in the red zone, ranking 28th in the NFL. Sunday, they were 2 for 5.
■ The Patriots’ offense has become a grind. The deep ball was a big part of the offense to start the season, but their longest pass against the Falcons was 30 yards and against the Chargers it was 27 yards to White on a swing pass.
The Chargers consistently defended the deep pass all game and forced the Patriots to chew them up underneath. And with Edelman gone, and Hogan and Amendola not 100 percent, Gronkowski and the running backs are the only intermediate options right now.
■ How much of a grind was Sunday’s game? The Patriots’ 19 third-down attempts were the fourth most for the team in the Bill Belichick era, and the most since they had 20 in the 2013 season opener. The Patriots converted nine, so they were able to move the ball. But they need to find that quick-strike offense during the bye.
■ Brady is still trying to force the deep ball, and at times isn’t seeing the whole field. On third and 14, Brady chucked it deep to Hogan in double coverage, and never saw Burkhead and White standing wide open as checkdowns.
A few plays later, Brady threw deep to Cooks in double coverage on the flea-flicker, and would have had a touchdown had he seen Hogan streaking wide open to the corner, like he did in the AFC Championship game last season.
■ Brady is also getting a little cocky with his newfound agility. Twice he took a sack after scrambling around the pocket and trying to make a play, whereas in the past he would have simply thrown the ball away.
■ As for Gronk, he only caught one of four passes down the seams. His three incompletions were tough plays in tight coverage, but those were plays he used to make in the past. Now, he gets alligator arms and looks a bit tentative when running down the seams, as is understandable for someone who has suffered as many injuries as he has. He was good on Sunday, but he doesn’t quite look like the same unstoppable Gronk.
■ The game plan was definitely for Brady to get rid of the ball quickly to neutralize the pass rush, but the offensive line still deserves a lot of credit for keeping the Chargers’ pass rush at bay. Nate Solder wasn’t perfect, but he did an admirable job against Joey Bosa, including one play where he impressively stayed with his block for five or six seconds, giving Brady enough time to hit White for 25 yards.
LaAdrian Waddle more than held his own when replacing Marcus Cannon for 51 snaps. The Chargers often lined up Bosa and Melvin Ingram directly across from Waddle, but he handled his assignments well.
Bosa, Ingram, and Chris McCain combined for six tackles, a sack, and a quarterback hit, which is mighty impressive by the offensive line.
When the Chargers had the ball
■ The Patriots blitzed at least eight times, but weren’t able to get home. They sacked Philip Rivers just once in 31 pass attempts (though no Patriot was credited with the sack), and gave him plenty of time in the pocket to find his receivers.
This strategy works when the Patriots are facing a quarterback who isn’t an effective pocket passer. But Rivers is a gunslinger, and also a statue who can’t avoid the rush. I’m surprised the Patriots didn’t try to blitz him more, and it’s disheartening that the guys up front couldn’t get much pressure on Rivers.
■ The Patriots replaced Dont’a Hightower by moving Kyle Van Noy to the outside linebacker/defensive end role on first and second down, and back to middle linebacker on obvious passing downs.
David Harris and Elandon Roberts saw an uptick in play as inside linebackers on first and second down, with Roberts playing 40 snaps and Harris a season-high 21.
Neither are very good in pass coverage — Roberts doesn’t have the instincts, and Harris doesn’t have the speed — so the Patriots used them as blitzers in the pass game, and they were effective. Harris caused the Rivers sack/fumble by absolutely mauling the running back.
Harris may not have footspeed, but he still packs a wallop, and should continue to help replace Hightower’s pass rushing abilities.
■ Rivers is no dummy — he went right after Johnson Bademosi, and mostly avoided Malcolm Butler. Including penalties, Bademosi was targeted 11 times, allowing four completions (three for first downs). He was also busted for a 30-yard pass interference, and was the targeted defender on both of the Chargers’ negated touchdowns.
Butler, meanwhile, was not targeted until Travis Benjamin’s 24-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter. Butler was targeted three more times in the fourth quarter, and didn’t allow a catch.
■ On Melvin Gordon’s 87-yard touchdown run, Rivers checked from a pass play to a run, Cassius Marsh lost the edge and got washed out inside by a pulling guard and Patrick Chung appeared to shoot the wrong gap . . .
. . . and Duron Harmon got turned around by his blocker, turning a seemingly harmless run into the longest touchdown allowed by the Patriots in two years.
■ And on Benjamin’s touchdown catch, Butler immediately turned to Devin McCourty after the play, indicating that he expected safety help over the top.
■ The Chargers have a right to feel a little ticked off after this game. The offensive pass interference call that wiped out Benjamin’s first touchdown was iffy at best. CBS didn’t show a good replay angle, but Tyrell Williams may have avoided contact with the defender.
And early in the game, the Chargers wanted to quick-snap on fourth and 1, but the officiating crew decided to measure the spot, even though the ball was clearly a yard short. The measurement stopped the game and halted the Chargers’ momentum. The Chargers still should have gone for it instead of attempting (and missing) a 51-yarder, however.
■ Great game for Lawrence Guy. Not only was he disruptive in the run game, finishing with five tackles and two stuffs, but he got a finger on the Chargers’ field goal attempt, marking the second straight week that the Patriots tipped or blocked a kick. Guy absolutely demolished the long snapper en route to tipping the kick.
■ Jonathan Jones and Brandon King did a great job of corralling Benjamin in the end zone for the safety on the punt return.
But Jones earned a demerit for a bad block-in-the-back penalty on a punt return.
■ Obviously, it’s not good that Stephen Gostkowski missed two 43-yard field goals. But he continues to do an amazing job on high, short kickoffs. The Chargers’ first three kick returns were returned to the 20, 15, and 12, before they got smart enough to just take a knee.
■ Belichick was on top of his game yet again. Lewis had a decent return to the 24 on the opening third-quarter kickoff, and it would have been easy to simply decline the Chargers’ offsides penalty and take the ball at the 24. But Belichick made them rekick, and Lewis broke off a 71-yard return. Of course, the offense wasted the good field position.