While the majority of the attention after the Patriots 35-17 win on Sunday over the Bengals was focused on the career day of Rob Gronkowski, and rightfully so, almost lost was the milestone reached by James White. The third-year running back from Wisconsin scored two touchdowns for the first time in his career and is working his way into becoming indispensable in the Patriots offense.
White’s career path has taken a similar turn to that of Shane Vereen, now a New York Giant. Vereen had a basic redshirt rookie year, showed signs of his potential in Year 2 and was a key part of the offense by Year 3. White’s trajectory seems to be pointing even higher than Vereen’s at this point of his stay in Foxboro.
With the emergence of Dion Lewis, a year ago White, nicknamed “Sweet Feet”, was pushed far to the back of the roster in the early part of the 2015 season, his second as a Patriot. After Lewis went down with a torn ACL, White was forced to the forefront and got progressively better as the year went on, especially in the passing game.
Now with Lewis eyeing a return probably right after the bye week, the question arises, what will happen to White once Lewis returns? The short answer? Nothing. He’s not going anywhere. Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels have a good problem in that once Lewis is ready to return, he can be eased into the lineup because White has become very dependable and productive as the Patriots third down back.
On Sunday, Brady targeted White nine times in the passing game, tied for the team lead with Gronkowski and the soft-spoken back produced with eight catches for 47 yards including two touchdowns of four and 15 yards in the Patriots win. Getting targeted that much means good things for White, not the least of which is that he’s earned his way into the Brady “circle of trust”.
“He was great again,” Tom Brady said of White. “He’s been such a dependable, consistent player for our team, and the role that he’s been has been spectacular. I can’t say enough great things about James as a player, as a person, as a teammate, his work ethic, his attitude.
Brady, ever the Michigan alum, then took a good-natured dig at his running back from a rival school, “He went to Wisconsin. That’s about the only thing bad about him.”
White always had the tools to excel in the passing game, but he didn’t thrive in the Patriots’ run between the tackles system. He had a propensity for going down on first contact. Which was strange considering he went to a Big Ten school and had 4800 career rushing yards and 48 touchdowns in college.
Now he seems to have worked hard and improved in that area and is on pace to catch 65-70 passes for nearly 600 yards. He and LeGarrette Blount have become a nice 1-2 punch out of the Patriots backfield.
“It feels good,” White said. “Whenever I get chance to help this team I want to do it whether it’s scoring touchdowns or just getting yards, pass blocking, running the football. I will do whatever I can to help this team.”
And he will, he and Lewis have different skill sets that each can play to their advantage. Lewis, when healthy, is special and has the ability to start, stop and turn on a dime. Julian Edelman nicknamed him “Little Dirty” was amazingly effective as an inside runner. His elusiveness is like Madden come to real life. He can pinball his way down the field making would-be tacklers miss. His touchdown against Dallas last season was a prime example of that.
White, while not having the video game start-stop ability that Lewis owns (who does?), but he does have deceptive speed and the ability to make tacklers miss in the open field. What’s not to love here? Josh McDaniels must be loving this.
Brady still seems at the top of his game, his ability to read the defense and see the entire field is without peer. And the weapons at his disposal are among the best that he’s ever had the pleasure to lead. Along with the best tight end in the game with Gronkowski, they’ve added Martellus Bennett. In the two games Brady’s been back at the helm, that dynamic duo has combined for 23 catches for 386 yards and four touchdowns.
The short area of the field is ably handled by Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. They’ve added WRs Chris Hogan and rookie Malcolm Mitchell to work outside the numbers. Hogan is quickly becoming a big play guy and is averaging 21.2 yards per reception. Blount handles the majority of the running game responsibilities and now White and Lewis will be able to share some of the running game duties as well as the third down back role in the passing game.
This group gives Brady a plethora of different weapons to attack opposing defenses with. With such widely varying skill sets, the Patriots can play any kind of game they choose. Want to go smash-mouth running game with two tight ends? Bring Bennett and Gronkowski inline and run Blount behind them.
The short, quick passing game to Edelman and Amendola? They work that area of the field to near perfection. But now they can open things up with the double tight end sets. No longer can teams attempt to just double team Gronk. Because Bennett can be just as effective when he’s split out wide, as we saw a week ago with his 37-yard touchdown in Cleveland. Hogan and Mitchell are just scratching the surface of their potential in the offense thus far.
Opponents are going to have to pick their poison, so to speak. There aren’t going to be a bunch of easy answers defending this group. Most fans and analysts use the 2007 Patriots team as the measuring stick when comparing the offenses of various Patriots teams. Once Lewis returns and the unit is truly back to having 100 percent of their weapons, this may be the most diverse, dangerous group that Brady has led.
So when “Little Dirty” gets back on the field shortly, don’t think for a second that Josh McDaniels is going to forget that he also has a bit of “Sweet Feet” already at his disposal. The running back position is going to be fun to watch. And James White will continue to be a big part of it.
“We’re On to Pittsburgh”
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