DENVER — Bill Belichick wants versatile football players — defensive ends who can play linebacker, safeties who can play cornerback, tight ends who can block and catch passes. He even used Troy Brown and Julian Edelman on defense when the situation called for it.
This season, Belichick has another Swiss Army Knife at his disposal. His name is Rex Burkhead, and while he isn’t NFL elite in any one facet of the game, he proved in Sunday night’s 41-16 win over the Broncos how dangerous of a weapon he can be for the Patriots on offense and special teams.
Burkhead can play the traditional running back role. Playing the most snaps of all the Patriots’ running backs (36), Burkhead replaced Mike Gillislee as the short-yardage back on Sunday and picked up some tough yards between the tackles. While he rushed for a modest 36 yards on 10 carries, Burkhead converted a key fourth-and-1 play in the first half, an area in which Gillislee has struggled all season. Burkhead also excels in pass protection.
He has shown in his limited work this season that he is a dangerous receiver. He can catch the ball out of the backfield, or from the slot or the boundary. And Burkhead isn’t a running back playing receiver. He’s polished.
In the first quarter, Burkhead came out of the backfield, put a move on Brandon Marshall, and caught a slant across the middle for a 10-yard gain.
The next play he lined up out wide and beat safety Justin Simmons across the middle on another slant for a 14-yard touchdown.
Watch Burkhead’s burst off the line, his precision with his route, and his devastating quickness against Simmons, and he looks an awful lot like Edelman. Burkhead caught all three passes thrown his way, for 27 yards.
He also played 10 special teams snaps, on punt coverage and kickoff coverage. Of course we all saw Burkhead block a punt in the second quarter, nearly picking the ball cleanly off the punter’s foot. But Burkhead also had a hand in two tackles on the kickoff coverage team. Twice he was the first one to the ball, and wasn’t afraid to stick his nose in there and lay a hit on the returner, though he wasn’t credited with the tackle on either play.
Burkhead has the mentality of a linebacker on the kickoff team.
A player who can pick up tough yards between the tackles, catch the football all over the field, protect the quarterback, block a punt, and tackle kickoff returners — add it all up, and Burkhead is as close to a two-way player as you will see in today’s NFL.
Other observations after rewatching the game:
When the Patriots had the ball
■ The Broncos didn’t try to disguise or change much of what they do on defense. They brought an extra defender into the box to play the run, and mostly played press man coverage on the outside.
Tom Brady neutralized the rush with a quick passing game to whomever was being covered by the Broncos’ linebackers and safeties. Usually it was the running backs and tight ends, who accounted for 16 of the Patriots’ 28 catches, but all four of Danny Amendola’s catches also came when the Patriots got him matched up with a linebacker. Brady barely tested Aqib Talib or Chris Harris, but went right after Marshall, Todd Davis, Simmons, and Will Parks.
■ Brady was able to move the chess pieces around to open up the field, as well. On Burkhead’s back-to-back catches in the first quarter, Brady first opened up the middle by moving James Develin out wide, drawing a linebacker with him (and revealing the man coverage).
On the next play, Rob Gronkowski drew three defenders, which gave Burkhead plenty of space to catch-and-run for the touchdown.
Another great aspect of Burkhead’s game: Simmons climbed on top of Burkhead at the 3, but Burkhead carried him into the end zone.
■ Of course the offensive line deserves a ton of credit, particularly backup right tackle LaAdrian Waddle, who only allowed one hit to Von Miller and otherwise did a nice job of “washing” him out of several plays. Nate Solder also handled Miller on a few snaps, and gave Brady more than enough time to scan the field and eventually throw the ball away down near the goal line. The run blocking was dominant at times, with Solder, Joe Thuney, Develin, and Dwayne Allen all paving the way for several nice runs up the middle and the fourth-and-1 conversion.
Brady was sacked once and hit just four times in 35 dropbacks, and the only sack allowed was by James White, who whiffed on the blitz pickup of Simmons down on the goal line. The offensive line in general, and Solder in particular, are playing much better now than they did in the beginning of the season.
■ The Broncos didn’t blitz much, and a bit curiously used Miller in pass coverage quite a bit — 13 times throughout the game. Miller was in coverage on Allen’s touchdown . . .
He covered Brandin Cooks in the slot down on the goal line . . .
And he trailed Martellus Bennett down the sideline on one play. The Broncos tried the strategy of rushing three or four and dropping seven or eight and forcing Brady to pat the football, but that only works if you can still get pressure on Brady. Miller should have been going after the quarterback more.
■ Burkhead was excellent, and Dion Lewis had a great game, but White was not at his best on Sunday night. The blitz whiff was bad, as it came on third and goal from the 1. White is usually reliable in this area, and had Simmons lined up, but just missed the block.
Then on third and 4 in the second quarter, Brady noticed a numbers advantage up front and audibled to a draw play. White had a ton of space and all the blocking set up for him on what should have been an easy conversion, but he danced too much and was tackled a yard short. It was interesting to see White only play 11 snaps on Sunday.
■ Bennett only played seven snaps, and while his shoulder injury may prevent him from doing much in the run game, he can certainly still catch and run with the ball. But it struck us on Sunday how much the Patriots need Bennett’s size at receiver, particularly in the red zone. On one third-down play, four of Brady’s receivers were shorter than 6 feet — Amendola, Cooks, Phillip Dorsett, and White.
■ The Patriots focused on three key areas during the bye week — red zone offense, short-yardage running, and penalties — and the results were mixed. The red zone offense began the game 1 for 3, with the Patriots unable to score after getting first and goal at the 2, but finished 4 for 6 overall. The short-yardage running struggled, with Brady getting stuffed and Burkhead getting stuffed on the goal line after his blocking imploded. But the offense didn’t commit one penalty all night, which pleased Belichick.
When the Broncos had the ball
■ The Patriots switched off throughout the game between playing two-deep safety to prevent the deep passes, and a single-high safety with an extra defender in the box to stop the run. But the real key for the Patriots’ defense was consistently bringing linebackers Elandon Roberts and David Harris up to the line of scrimmage and zone blitzing up the middle throughout the game.
The Patriots usually only sent four rushers, but they made Brock Osweiler guess who was rushing and who was dropping into coverage, and they were able to generate some pressure and force bad throws with Roberts and Harris screaming up the middle and Deatrich Wise and Trey Flowers looping and stunting around the edge.
■ But overall, the Broncos’ offense didn’t play that poorly, and the Patriots’ defense didn’t do a good enough job of getting a hand in Osweiler’s face. The Patriots did not record a sack, and officially hit Osweiler just two times in 33 passing plays (we counted three hits).
The Broncos scored on four of their first five drives, but couldn’t capitalize with touchdowns. The Patriots certainly deserve credit for holding the Broncos to field goals, but the defense was fairly average on Sunday, and the game was about the Patriots’ special teams, not the defense, creating points for the offense.
■ Boy, did Malcolm Butler have a rough time with Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders had six catches for 137 yards, and five of the catches for 99 yards came against Butler. Overall, Sanders caught 5 of 8 passes against Butler, while converting four third downs. On the Broncos’ first play of the game, Butler guessed wrong on the out pass to the sideline, and Sanders burned him with a double move for 31 yards (Devin McCourty saved the touchdown). Sanders simply outplayed Butler for the ball on a 23-yarder down the sideline, then completely turned Butler around on another 23-yarder in the third quarter.
■ Kyle Van Noy, Adam Butler, and McCourty each were excellent in run defense — particularly McCourty, who played more at linebacker and made two run stuffs. Van Noy spent much of the night rushing off the edge and had three pressures. Reserve linebacker Marquis Flowers, playing due to an injury to Cassius Marsh, played 19 snaps and did a nice job covering Jamaal Charles out of the backfield.
■ The run defense was far from perfect. C.J. Anderson averaged 5.4 yards per carry, Charles averaged 4.8 yards per carry, and the Patriots let Anderson rip off a 21-yard run early in the game, on which Alan Branch whiffed on an arm tackle.
■ Lewis made three defenders miss on his 103-yard kickoff return. He weaved around Shaq Barrett, juked out punter Riley Dixon, and burned past Devontae Booker along the sideline.
But the Patriots may have gotten away with one. Lewis was able to beat Barrett to the outside because Brandon Bolden was holding onto Barrett by his jersey sleeve, slowing him down just long enough to give Lewis the space he needed. No penalty was called, and the touchdown stood.
■ Burkhead was really flying around on kickoff coverage. He was first on the scene twice on kickoff coverage, lowering his head and delivering the hits that helped bring Booker down.
■ Jonathan Jones and Jacob Hollister were both flying down the field when Isaiah McKenzie muffed the opening punt of the game. The Patriots didn’t necessarily cause the fumble, but McKenzie definitely felt the heat of two Patriots barreling down on him. Jones then kicked the ball free, and Hollister was in perfect position to recover it.