‘It’s really kind of an orchestra’: How the Patriots deploy their varied running backs
FOXBOROUGH — Seeing seven players (four running backs) get at least one carry last Sunday in the Patriots’ 24-10 win over the Minnesota Vikings was like watching a symphony come together for fullback James Develin.
The Patriots used all their options to mash out 160 yards on the ground. Yes, Tom Brady reached 1,000 career rushing yards with a third-down scamper. And, yes, receivers Julian Edelman and Cordarrelle Patterson made cameos in the ground game. But the core group of Sony Michel, James White, a healthy Rex Burkhead, and Develin (who found the end zone twice in the victory) gives the Patriots a full complement of options in the run game.
“We have a really diverse group, as far as skill-set, in the running back room,” Develin said. “So we all feed off each other and everyone kind of knows their strengths and what they can do well. People try to learn things from the other guys that are doing things that they might be a little deficient at.
“It’s really kind of an orchestra a little bit. Everybody kind of works off other guys and works on themselves and it’s a beautiful thing when everybody’s kind of vining and flowing off of each other.”
When Burkhead returned from the injured reserve list (after missing eight weeks because of a neck injury), the pieces in the Patriots backfield immediately snapped back into place.
With 17 carries for 63 yards, Michel handled the load on the ground. Burkhead was right behind him with seven carries for 20 yards — numbers that likely will increase in coming weeks.
“It’s good to have Rex back out there,” White said. “He’s a good football player. Adds another weapon to our offense. He makes plays on special teams and offense so it’s good to have him back out there. The more weapons the better.”
White settled back into his role as a pass-catching threat on third down. His nine targets against the Vikings were the most since 13 targets against Buffalo in Week 8. White turned those into seven catches for a season-high 92 yards against the Vikings. He also rushed six times for 26 yards.
As a group, the backs are all relatively ego-less.
“I don’t try and pay too much attention to how many targets or whatever I’m getting,” Develin said. “I just go out there and try to play football whether it’s 13 targets or zero targets. Just go out there and do my job.”
Michel leads the Patriots with 649 yards and five touchdowns on 144 carries, but he welcomes the help.
“Just having many backs helps this team,” Michel said. “Being able to use different guys is great. You’re able to use all your weapons.”
Develin, an undrafted defensive end at Brown who signed with the Patriots in 2012, has carried the same attitude throughout his six NFL seasons.
“I had to do that kind of stuff to get my foot in the door in the league,” Develin said. “So I just try to continue to take that approach every single day. It doesn’t matter what’s going on, I’ve just got to come in here and put my best foot forward and working hard is just something I’ve got to do.”
White said Develin’s approach is infectious.
“He’s an awesome player and an awesome person,” White said. “Plays with a lot of energy. He’s a guy that can really set the tone out there.”
With 1,460 yards, the Patriots rank 11th in the NFL in rushing, doing it by committee while withstanding injuries throughout the season.
“This word gets thrown around a lot, but what it all boils down to is execution,” Develin said. “Especially up front, our offensive line has had two great weeks paving open holes for all our backs. So we’ve just got to get to work and continue to grind and execute play in and play out.
“Not everything’s going to be a 30-yard gain, 60-yard gain. We’ve got to understand that we’re going to have 2-, 3-yard gains that will eventually become 6-, 7-, 10-yard gains later on in the game. So we’ve just got to keep plugging along and execute.”