Patriots

Protect and swerve: Looks like Lewis has earned more playing time

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Protect and swerve: Looks like Lewis has earned more playing time

FOXBORO -- Bill Belichick has said it many times, though in not so many words: This is a meritocracy. Opportunities go to those who deserve them. Time is earned.

Trey Flowers? He's near the top of the list of snaps played by defensive linemen across the league because "he's earned that playing time," Belichick explained recently. Eric Rowe, who had a short-lived run as a starter before suffering a groin injury? He was playing as much as he was because "he's definitely gaining with the experience that he's received and earned."

There's that word again. "Earned."

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Understanding the requirements for time on the field makes the case of Dion Lewis a relatively curious one. He's averaging 5.0 yards per carry and 3.5 yards after contact per attempt. He's been his team's most elusive back on a per-touch basis. He's handled his duties in pass-protection. And when given a shot at more time on Sunday against the Jets following a Mike Gillislee fumble, he responded with 52 yards on 11 carries and a goal-line touchdown. Belichick said later his team's ability to move the ball on the ground against the Jets was part of the reason Brady was kept as clean as he was.

The 29 snaps Lewis saw at MetLife Stadium were a season-high. Despite being healthy and in uniform all year he has played in just 21.5 percent of Patriots plays.

Lewis may not be exactly the same player he was through the first half of the 2015 season when he was an electric ball-carrier who turned in a handful of Barry Sanders-type moments before tearing his ACL. But if he's not quite there, he's close, and he knows it.

Taking a closer look at some of his plays from over the weekend, here's why if the Patriots opted to continue to bump up Lewis' playing time, it would be well-deserved.

HARD TO HANDLE

Lewis somehow turned this first-quarter run, where he's stopped three yards behind the line of scrimmage, into a one-yard gain. That may not sound all that significant, but second-and-nine isn't quite as daunting as second-and-13. He actually made two tacklers miss on the play, and he finished the game having forced five missed tackles in all. He's now causing one missed tackle for every three carries this season, according to Pro Football Focus, which is the second-best rate in the NFL.

For running backs, getting what's blocked is good. Having the ability to create yards on your own as well is even better, and no one on the Patriots has done that better than Lewis this season.

Take the above run for example. On the first play of the second half, Lewis burrowed into the line of scrimmage and found nothing. In the image grabbed here, Lewis is totally obstructed by Nate Solder and Jets linebacker Demario Davis, but he bounces the run out to the left. After avoiding a swipe by Kony Ealy, Lewis out-runs corner Morris Claiborne to the sideline for a gain of 11 yards that he basically pulled out of thin air.

Here's Lewis -- blending in with the NFL logo -- meeting 332-pound defensive tackle Mike Pennel (No. 98) and running through his arm tackle for a gain of seven yards. After the play, Pennel looks up to see just how far Lewis had driven ahead, and he slapped the turf out of frustration as if to say, "How did he do that?"

HOLDING HIS GROUND

Against the Jets, when not carrying the football, Lewis proved to be a willing and able pass-protector. On this second-quarter throw -- a Tom Brady deep shot that was intercepted by Buster Skrine -- Lewis provided his quarterback with all the time he needed. Spotting strong safety Jamal Adams creeping toward the line of scrimmage late in the play clock, Lewis bailed on what looked like was a designed play-fake to the right in order to thwart the oncoming Jets rookie missile. Lewis stuck his right shoulder into Adams' midsection and put him on his back.

This block, which came earlier in the second quarter, wasn't as jarring. But it was impactful. Again, the Patriots ran a play-fake to the right side of the line of scrimmage. Again, though he was perhaps a little late this time, Lewis spotted a pass-rusher screaming off the left edge. This time it was the other Jets rookie safety Marcus Maye. Lewis barely got his hands on Maye, but he altered Maye's course just enough to push him past Brady. The result was a near-interception by Skrine on the sideline, but Lewis likely saved Brady a shot to the spine.

A productive runner. A capable pass-protector. Perhaps Lewis will see more time moving forward as a result of his play. But Belichick may have, in a roundabout way, hinted at the reason Lewis hasn't been on the field more during a press conference last week.

He was asked about incorporating Rex Burkhead into the offense when the Patriots have seen their other backs be productive in the work they've been given. Belichick passed on the specifics of Burkhead's situation, but he shed some light on his decision-making process in general.

"As a coach, I can’t control a player’s performance," Belichick said. "That’s up to him. So we put the players out there and let them compete and let them play and try to play the ones that earn the playing time, earn the opportunities. That’s up to each individual player to do. Sometimes circumstances enhance or can restrict those opportunities, but the most important thing is taking advantage of them."

The circumstances that could be restricting Lewis' opportunities are two-fold.

For one, his teammates at the position have in general performed well with the chances they've been given. James White is on pace for a career year as the team's sub back. Gillislee had seemingly made few mistakes as New England's hammer between the tackles until fumbling last weekend. And Burkhead could return soon from the rib injury that has held him out since Week 3, which may make the running-back workload for the Patriots even more unpredictable.

There's also Lewis' injury history. Though he's healthy now, he has had a litany of physical issues that have hampered him over the course of his career. His 2015 ACL team and subsequent patella fracture last summer kept him off the field until midway through the 2016 season.

The Patriots may be looking to manage Lewis during the regular season in order to ensure that they have him at full strength in December and January. It's an approach they've taken in the past with receiver Danny Amendola in 2014 and 2016, despite Amendola's having earned opportunities with what he'd shown on the field in the limited time he'd been given in those seasons.

At the moment, Lewis' skill set may be viewed as a luxury for an offense that ranks first in the NFL in yards and fifth in points. But going forward, if they should need a boost the way they did in Jersey on Sunday, Lewis has certainly earned the opportunity to give it to them.

EX-PATS PODCAST: How Belichick the perfectionist will find flaws in win vs. Raiders

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EX-PATS PODCAST: How Belichick the perfectionist will find flaws in win vs. Raiders

0:55 - Patriots playing great as they stream roll the Raiders but Koppen explains that Belichick will knock them down as he strives for perfection. Also talk about how it takes a couple months into the season for the coaches and players to learn each other again.

5:40 - Stephon Gilmore playing excellent lined up against Michael Crabtree. Malcolm Butler bounces back but gives up the only score to Amari Cooper. Koppen suggest Butler’s contract situation might be affecting his play. 

7:50 - All in on the Patriots defense yet? Giardi and Koppen discuss the defensive play and the upcoming offenses the Patriots will be facing.

10:30 - Dan Koppen talks about job security in the NFL and if he ever worried about somebody else taking his job, and the cutthroat nature of the Patriots. 

13:50 - Tom Brady picking apart the Raiders and Jack Del Rio’s defenses throughout his career. 

17:45 - A debate about Patriots backup quarterbacks and if Matt Cassel was actually a good NFL QB. 

21:20 - A few game notes: Rex Burkhead’s fumble vs. the Raiders, LaAdrian Waddle filling in for Marcus Cannon. 

Speed to burn: Cooks, Brady team up to form most productive deep-ball combo

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Speed to burn: Cooks, Brady team up to form most productive deep-ball combo

The first came in the second quarter, when Brandin Cooks turned on afterburners to beat a Raiders double team and glide underneath a Tom Brady heave for 52 yards. The second came in the third quarter, on the third play from scrimmage of the second half, when Cooks faked an out-route, jetted past rookie corner Obi Melifonwu, and sped into the end zone to make the score 24-0. 

Both deep completions in New England's 33-8 win over Oakland just added to cumulative effect that Cooks has had on the Patriots offense since arriving before the season to become their top deep threat. 

Paired with Brady, Cooks has actually become the most productive deep threat in the NFL. 

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According to Pro Football Focus, Cooks leads all receivers with 431 yards on deep passes (throws that travel 20 yards or more down the field). In second place is Houston's DeAndre Hopkins with 313 yards. 

And Brady, who has long been more effective in the short-to-intermediate range than he has been deep, is now among the league leaders in creating explosive plays from the quarterback position. The Patriots are third in the NFL with 41 pass plays of 20 yards or more, and they are tied for second with nine plays of 40 yards or more. 

"You're always trying to work on that," Brady told WEEI's Kirk and Callahan Show of his team's deep passing game. "It's not one particular year [you work on it]. I think that's been a concerted effort by our entire offense, trying to make more explosive plays in the pass game. 

"Sometimes your offense is built differently. We actually have some guys now that can really get down the field so that becomes more of a point of emphasis. The way Brandin runs, the way that Chris Hogan runs, the way that Phillip Dorsett runs, they're very fast. You need to be able to take advantage of their skill set . . . 

"When we had David Patten we were throwing it deep. I mean, but David Patten didn't run a lot of short routes. I would say Brandin Cooks, in general, he doesn't run a lot of short routes. Everyone has a different role. If we can get by you, I think that's a good place to throw the ball. if we can't, we gotta figure out ways to throw it underneath and different weeks are going to call for different things based on the strengths of the defenses we're playing, too."

A week before beating the Raiders, against the Broncos and their talented corners, the Patriots had less luck pushing the ball down the field -- though they tried to hit Cooks deep multiple times. In Mexico City, Cooks matched up with a weaker secondary, and he wasn't at all slowed by the altitude, catching six passes in all for 149 yards and a score. 

Per PFF, Cooks has seen almost one third of his targets (30 percent) come on deep passes, which is the ninth-highest rate in the league. He's caught all 11 of his catchable deep passes, three of them accounting for scores.

"Obviously when you're throwing the ball 50-60 yards down the field," Brady said, "your chances of completion go down, but if you hit it, it ends up being a very explosive plays and you can change a lot of field position and get a defense really on their heels if they have to defend every blade of grass on the field." 

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