Running with purpose: Why the Patriots offense has reason to be encouraged

Running with purpose: Why the Patriots offense has reason to be encouraged

When Buffalo's defense held the Chiefs to 2.9 yards per rush attempt in Week 12 it meant one of two things: 1) The Bills had solved the running-game issues they exhibited when they allowed over 600 yards rushing combined in their previous three games, or 2) it was kind of flukey. 

What happened on Sunday in Orchard Park was an indication that it seemed to be more of the latter. 

The Patriots ran for 191 yards on 35 carries for a 5.5 yards-per-carry average in their 23-3 win over the Bills. It was the second consecutive week the Patriots cracked the 190-yard mark and the 5.0 yards-per-carry threshold. 


For the third straight week, it was primarily the Dion Lewis Show, Featuring Rex Burkhead. With both multi-purpose backs running so well -- and with James White and Brandon Bolden also healthy and game-day regulars -- Mike Gillislee was a healthy scratch for the fourth week in a row. 

Lewis ran 15 times for 92 yards, including a career-long 44-yard run that featured a hellacious stiff arm and multiple broken tackles. He averaged 4.4 yards after contact per attempt in the game, according to Pro Football Focus. 

Burkhead, meanwhile, carried 12 times for 78 yards and continues to be the team's choice on the goal line, running in both of New England's scores in the third quarter. He averaged 2.0 yards after contact per attempt and forced four missed tackless on his carries, per PFF. 

Perhaps the only issue surrounding the Patriots running game -- which was given a spark in Week 6 by Lewis and picked up continued momentum with a dominant four-minute drive to close out a win in Week 7 -- is that the Patriots didn't turn its way sooner. 

Lewis came into the game averaging 5.4 yards per carry on first down since the Week 9 bye. That helped keep the Patriots out of third-and-long spots and "on schedule." Yet on first down from the Bills 31-yard line on New England's first drive, Tom Brady dropped back to pass and was sacked. They threw again on third-and-11 two plays later and eventually had to kick a field goal. 

Credit the Bills defense for snuffing out first-down runs at the ends of two different first-half drives that led to field goals, but the Patriots emerged from halftime having run for 125 yards on 16 carries and hearts set on running the football more in the second half. 

Using their athleticism up front -- pulling guard Shaq Mason, leading runs with tight ends Dwayne Allen and Rob Gronkowski -- the Patriots offense continued to churn. The running game set up play-action throws to Gronkowski, and when they got close, they weren't afraid to keep it on the ground. 

Brady finished the day without a touchdown pass for the first time since the season-opener. He got into a very public disagreement with his offensive coordinator and good friend Josh McDaniels. It wasn't necessarily his day. 

But with a running game performing the way it is, the Patriots didn't need Brady's best. That's why this offense may be as imposing now as it's been all year. 


Patriots release Shea McClellin

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Patriots release Shea McClellin

Shea McClellin will be blocking kicks for somebody else next season. 

The Patriots announced Monday they've released the veteran linebacker, ending his tenure with the team after two seasons.  ESPN's Field Yates broke the news.

The Pats signed McClellin to a three-year deal prior to the 2016 season, but that was the only season in which he played for the team. McClellin missed all of last season due to injury. Prior to coming to New England, McClellin played four seasons with the Bears, who chose him 19th overall in 2012. 

McClellin's biggest contribution with the Pats came when he blocked a Justin Tucker kick in Week 14 of the 2016 season against the Ravens.

Pinning down the best lesson Vince Wilfork could teach Danny Shelton

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Pinning down the best lesson Vince Wilfork could teach Danny Shelton

When the Patriots traded for Danny Shelton earlier this offseason, sending a 2019 third-rounder to Cleveland in exchange for the defensive tackle, they traded for a player who was already being mentored by one of their own. 

In a conference call with reporters on Monday, Shelton explained that one of his agents put him in touch with former Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork so that Shelton could pick up some tips from one of the best defensive tackles in football of the past 15 years. 

"For me, he’s someone that I still look up to even when he was with the Texans," Shelton said. "I got the opportunity to reach out to him and kind of pick his brain and just learn a couple of tips from him. He’s been really responsive. He’s been a guy that has been really helpful this offseason and I’m looking forward to reaching out more and learning some more from him."

When Shelton was coming out of the University of Washington in 2015,'s Lance Zierlein's "NFL comparison" was Wilfork. Both carried similar builds -- Shelton is now listed at 335 pounds -- and both were viewed as surprisingly good athletes for their body types. Shelton was also viewed as the top two-gapping tackle in the draft that year, which is exactly what the Patriots ask their interior linemen to do. 

Shelton has made good on those projections over the last couple of years. Last season, he was a key part of a Browns defense that ranked fourth against the run by Football Outsiders in terms of DVOA. In 2016, Shelton was ranked by Pro Football Focus as its eighth-best interior lineman against the run. Per PFF, he was second that year -- behind only Damon Harrison -- in terms of the number of run stops he recorded from the interior.

It's clear that Shelton, the No. 12 overall pick three years ago, understands what his strengths are. 

"Honestly, I’m just going to go with whatever Coach [Bill Belichick] wants me to do," Shelton said. "My best feature is stopping the run, so if he wants me to play at a specific position I’ll do it, and I’ll make sure I do my job for the team’s success."

So how can Wilfork help? If he has any tips on how to be a consistent player from the inside in Belichick's system, that could go a long way. Over the course of Wilfork's 13-year career, few defensive tackles were as effective from week to week and year to year. Wilfork played at least 830 snaps in four of his last five seasons with the Patriots (he was injured in 2013), and even during his two seasons with the Texans, he averaged about 600 snaps per year. He made five Pro Bowls with the Patriots and was named a First or Second-Team All-Pro four times.

In what form might Wilfork's advice on consistency be delivered? Would it be nutritional, which was an aspect of his preparation he embraced later in his career? Would it be technique-based? Would it be simply how to take the coaching dispensed inside the walls of Gillette Stadium? 

Shelton, who missed two games last season and played in 469 snaps, doesn't have a long-term contract with the Patriots to be able to prove his worth over multiple years the way Wilfork did. And he may not be asked to take on the myriad roles Wilfork was during his time under Belichick. But if Shelton can pick up some advice from Wilfork on how to stay on the field and how to help the Patriots win on first and second downs, that might make him the team's most valuable offseason addition. 

New England finished the season 20th in rush yards allowed per game, and they were 31st in yards per attempt allowed. In the Super Bowl, with run-stuffing defensive tackle Alan Branch a healthy scratch, the Patriots allowed 6.1 yards per carry to the Eagles on their way to 164 yards rushing. 

Shelton is in the final year of his rookie contract and scheduled to make $2.03 million this season. The Patriots may not be willing to pick up his hefty $11.7 million fifth-year option for 2019, but if he can continue his upward trajectory then maybe the Patriots will work to extend him before the end of the year. 

How Wilfork impacts that trajectory, if at all, remains to be seen. But he's certainly not a bad guy for Shelton to have in his corner as the 24-year-old embarks on life with the Patriots.