FOXBORO -- Mike Gillislee saw a season-low 13 offensive snaps for the Patriots in Week 6 when they beat the Jets in New Jersey. Gillislee fumbled at the end of the first quarter of that game, giving away possession, and seemingly opening the door for Dion Lewis to take on the lead-back role.
Gillislee has played exactly 13 snaps in each of the past three Patriots games (39 total) and Lewis has out-snapped him easily (85 total). However, when asked for the reason why we've seen more Lewis than Gillislee lately, running backs coach Ivan Fears said this week that it had nothing to do with the turnover and everything to do with the matchups.
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"Game plan. Game plan," he said. "Style of play. How are we playing the game? You know us. We're going to go out to a game and we're going to figure out, What's the best way to beat you? That's the way we're going to play. That's the No. 1 way this gets started. Dion's gotta make plays when we give him that kind of opportunity and he has."
It wasn't all that long ago we hinted at the possibility of more time for Lewis, and that's exactly what he's received. He has set new season-high marks for carries in each of the past three weeks (11, 13, 15) for 172 yards and 135 yards after contact. Per Pro Football Focus, he's made 11 tackles miss since taking over the lead job.
"He's got all the ability," Tom Brady said two weeks ago. "He just keeps getting more opportunities doing a great job for us. He's been really consistent, had a tough injury [in 2015] -- you talk about mental toughness -- and coming back from that and he's really done a great job. Every time he gets the ball something good is happening for us, so we've got to keep it going."
Gillislee, meanwhile, has carried 29 times for 109 yards in the past three weeks. He's made two tackles miss in three games, per PFF.
Lewis was vocal about his wish to play more earlier this season so Fears was asked if Gillislee might now be impacted in a similar way. We haven't heard him be as open with his desire to play more, but still . . . is it a challenge for these backs to establish a rhythm when there are so many -- including Rex Burkhead and James White -- getting work?
"I don't know about that. I think some guys might need more carries to find their groove in the game or whatever it may be," Fears said. "But when it all comes down to it, you've got to take every opportunity you get and make a play.
"We can't wait for you to find your little niche. You gotta go out there and make a play on the limited snaps -- who knows how many plays we're going to get in the game? Make a play. Let's go. [The more] guys we have doing that, the better off we are."
In recent weeks, the group's most consistent play-maker as a ball carrier has been Lewis. Short-yardage situations. Goal-line. Four-minute offense. He's been the go-to option, not Gillislee, because of his make-you-miss ability.
On plays when it appears as though Lewis should be stopped for a loss or no gain, he turns them into positive yardage to help keep the offense on track. If he can make a tackle miss, it may mean the difference between an eventual third-and-3 or a third-and-10. Against the Chargers, he made a tackler miss in the hole and picked up seven.
"When it comes down to it," Fears said, "they gotta have the vision, they gotta have the ability to make the break when they see it, and they've gotta be able to make a play . . . Guys are blessed with certain skills and they've gotta use them. Whatever they have. They've gotta use their tools to make a play."
Will Gillislee be entrusted to use his skills more extensively with Lewis running the way he has? Based on what Fears said, then sure. At some point. If the game plan calls for the use of a bigger back.
But Week 10 may not be the week to expect anyone in the Patriots running back meeting room to go off. The Broncos are the second-best run defense in the league this year, allowing 3.0 yards per carry.