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.

Ryan's 2 TD passes enough as Falcons hold off Seahawks 34-31

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Ryan's 2 TD passes enough as Falcons hold off Seahawks 34-31

SEATTLE - Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons did enough through 3 1/2 quarters that even the best comeback attempt by Russell Wilson fell short this time.

A couple of yards short to be exact.

Ryan threw a pair of touchdown passes, Adrian Clayborn returned a fumble 10 yards for a score and the Falcons watched Blair Walsh's 52-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds fall short, holding off the Seattle Seahawks for a 34-31 win on Monday night.

Atlanta won its second straight to stay on the heels of New Orleans and Carolina in the NFC South, and handed Seattle a second consecutive home loss.

"What an absolute team win from the guys tonight," Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said. "Coming here, in this environment, with the crowd, we thought it would be two competitive, tough teams that were going to battle for it in the biggest way."

Ryan threw TDs to Mohamed Sanu and Levine Toilolo, while Tevin Coleman added a 1-yard TD run on Atlanta's opening possession.

But it was Clayborn's fumble return that helped break the game open early in the second quarter and gave Atlanta a 21-7 lead. He scooped up a loose ball after Wilson was crunched by Takk McKinley and Courtney Upshaw.

"I think we're moving in the right direction. We keep proving we can finish games and beat guys. We have to take the momentum and keep rolling with it," Clayborn said.

With Seattle down 11 points, Wilson hit Doug Baldwin on a 29-yard TD with 3 minutes left and then threw to Jimmy Graham for the two-point conversion. Seattle got the ball back and moved in range for Walsh, whose attempt was on line but landed short of the crossbar.

"That was in our range, and in hindsight I would have just driven it more," Walsh said. "I would have driven it more and not left it short. I was too accurate and didn't have enough on it."

Wilson again was the entirety of Seattle's offense, throwing for 258 yards and two touchdowns, and running for another 86 yards and a TD.

But it was an awful night for the Seahawks, filled with more injuries and questionable decisions by coach Pete Carroll. He called for a fake field goal late in the first half rather than attempting a 35-yard kick. He also made a questionable challenge in the fourth quarter that didn't go his way and left Seattle with just one timeout.

That lack of timeouts came back to haunt Seattle on the final drive when seconds ticked away and rather than running one more play, Walsh was sent out to attempt the 52-yard kick. His long for the season is 49 yards.

The conclusion only amplified Carroll's baffling decision at the end of the first half, when Seattle ran a fake field goal rather than having Walsh attempt a 35-yarder that would have pulled Seattle within 24-20. Holder Jon Ryan completed his shovel pass to Luke Willson, but Grady Jarrett read the play and tackled Willson for a 4-yard loss.

Willson said Atlanta's defense on the play was different than what Seattle had seen on film.

"It would have been a really good call if we had made it," Carroll said. "Terrific opportunity right where we wanted it and the defensive tackle made a better play."

Seattle played a game for the first time since the end of the 2010 season without Richard Sherman. His streak of 99 consecutive starts in the regular season was snapped because of a torn Achilles tendon suffered against Arizona. The Seahawks were also without safety Kam Chancellor because of a neck injury, leaving their vaunted secondary with several new faces.

"Those two are phenomenal players. ... It was a lot different," Sanu said. "They did a lot of different things but we just had to take advantage of our routes."

MATTY ICE

Ryan was more than happy to pick on a defense without Sherman and Chancellor. He was 19 of 27 passing for 195 yards and rarely faced pressure. Seattle had one sack, and the Falcons went 9 of 14 on third-down conversions.

Sanu made a great one-handed grab for a 2-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Ryan found Toilolo on a 25-yard TD in the third quarter to give Atlanta a 31-20 lead. Matt Bryant added a 19-yard field goal with 3:49 left to put the Falcons ahead by 11, and Wilson's late heroics weren't enough.

Ryan's streak of 64 straight games passing for at least 200 yards was snapped.

INJURIES

Seattle's injury woes continued. The Seahawks lost rookie cornerback Shaquill Griffin to a concussion on the second play of the game, forcing newly signed veteran Byron Maxwell into a more prominent role than expected.

Early in the second half, promising running back Mike Davis was lost to a groin injury after taking a screen pass 21 yards. Davis had two receptions and had carried six times for 18 yards before getting hurt. Seattle also lost starting guard Oday Aboushi in the fourth quarter with a shoulder injury.

Atlanta got a scare when safety Keanu Neal was checked for a concussion in the first half. He was cleared to return.

UP NEXT

Falcons: Host Tampa Bay on Sunday to open a three-game homestand.

Seahawks: Travel to division foe San Francisco on Sunday.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

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.