Training Camp Will Answer How the Patriots Running Backs Are Used

Steve Balestrieri
June 22, 2017 at 6:52 am ET

 

The Patriots made another big move in an offseason chock full of them by signing LB David Harris who was just let go by the Jets. He filled a position of not necessarily need but one of concern depth-wise. With these moves that they’ve made on defense, it will allow the team to easily switch back and forth between three and four man fronts which they like to do. But today the focus is on the running backs. And how they’re going to be used. And those answers will likely be answered once training camp begins in July.

After the Patriots’ LeGarrette Blount hit free agency, we knew there was a good chance that he wouldn’t return. He slowed noticeably down the stretch and despite an outstanding career year, the team could have used an infusion of youth there. So, the team brought in a pair of intriguing players; Rex Burkhead from the Bengals and Mike Gillislee from the Bills.

Each has some qualities that should be utilized here in New England by the coaching staff as they join James White, Dion Lewis as the players most likely to see significant snaps. 2nd-year player D.J. Foster who is another intriguing kid with the ball in his hands will have to really step up his game this summer. And judging from the Patriots modus operandi in OTAs and mini-camp, they were giving him plenty of opportunities to see where his progression lies.

The Patriots under Belichick have rarely used a true “feature” back. The exception would be Corey Dillon in 2004. They’ve instead relied on a running back by committee and they mix and match their talent depending on the opponent from week to week. Their top four backs will earn about $2 million less than LeVeon Bell from the Steelers. That’s why we weren’t buying all of these Adrian Peterson rumors this spring.

For now, it appears that Gillislee will take over the Blount role and be the main guy to carry the ball in the running game. It doesn’t mean that the others can’t run the ball but he seems to be the best fit doing so.

Right away on his signing, the comparisons went out between Gillislee and Blount and they need to stop. They are two entirely different players. Blount outweighs Gillislee by a good 30 pounds. Gillislee is built more like Stevan Ridley and although he doesn’t Blount’s power, he quicker to hit the holes and can make people miss in the backfield, something that Blount had issues with. He can really hit the edge quickly

Although he wasn’t a prolific receiver in Buffalo, Gillislee runs good routes and is a better option in the passing game than Blount was. So, his being in the backfield means that teams will have to account for him as both a runner and receiver where Blount was more of just a one option guy as a runner.

Burkhead is more of a “do-everything” kind of guy, while he lacks the power of Gillislee and the straight-line speed, he has excellent quickness and will lug the ball between the tackles, with good vision and is a very good receiver out of the backfield. He’s also a stellar special teams’ player, something that may spell the end of the line for a guy like Brandon Bolden.

I did a podcast this week with John Sarianides from @xnoJoe.com and he brought up a great point about Burkhead. I’m paraphrasing here a bit, but he basically was saying, “Don’t look at what Burkhead was asked to do with the Bengals, if you want to see how the Patriots will use him, go back to his Nebraska tape.”

James White proved his worth in the Super Bowl with a fantastic performance and if not for a tremendous comeback by a guy named Brady, he was an easy choice to be the game’s most valuable player against the Falcons. He is the perfect sub-back. He has quick feet, good hands and runs excellent routes. He can lug the occasional run between the tackles but his value lays in the passing game where he can even split out wide as a receiver.

Dion Lewis is cut from the same mold as White but is a better runner inside with the ball in his hands. He’s more of a running back than a receiver but is very dangerous in open space with his elusiveness. The only question with him is his durability, he’s suffered some serious injuries in his career and that may be a factor in his usage.

One area that they will all be judged on is their ability to pass block. The Patriots and their coaches demand that the backs all be excellent pass blockers. Nothing will get a guy taken off the field more quickly (besides putting the ball on the ground) than whiffing on a pass blocking assignment. See the Super Bowl and Dont’a Hightower’s sack. Freeman whiffed and badly. If he doesn’t, perhaps Atlanta is trying on their rings right now.

Bill Belichick last fall in one of his pressers talked about the difficulty of pass blocking and the amount of time spent on the subject should answer any questions about its importance.

“That’s probably the hardest thing to have to do is to figure out whether the guy is blitzing or not, because when he comes across, he’s trying to come across like he’s blitzing so you’ll stay in and take him,” Belichick said.

“But if he really has you in coverage and he’s coming across to just hold you in and you get out, then you’re out and you don’t have to block him and he has to cover you. So that’s a real cat and mouse game there between the back who has the pickup and the linebacker who is in man coverage who is trying to keep him in by using a blitz technique. And if either guy is wrong on that, it’s like playing chicken. If either guy’s wrong on that, you’re out, he blitzes and you get sacked. Or you blitz and he knows you’re not coming and he’s out and then you can’t cover him and it’s a big play in man-to-man coverage.

“That’s a tough spot. It’s not an easy thing for a back to do. Plus, you play against a lot of different linebackers and they all do it a little bit differently and teams try to scheme that up a little bit with different calls and little ways to trick a back and stuff like that. That’s probably the hardest part, really. And then there’s, of course, blocking him. Just because you know who to block doesn’t – a back blocking a blitzing linebacker is not a gimme. Depending on who that guy is, there are different ways you might want to block him.”

There will be no shortage of story lines to follow once training camp opens in July, but watching the running backs and how they compete and get their roles worked out should be at the top of the list.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

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