James White

Patriots get a well-rounded performance from their backs without Gillislee

Patriots get a well-rounded performance from their backs without Gillislee

DENVER -- The Patriots might've proved just how deep they are at running back by the caliber of player they were willing to bench on Sunday night against the Broncos. 

Denver's defense came into Sunday night ranked second in total defense and fifth against the run, yet the Patriots sat their leading rusher and still put up big offensive numbers in their 41-16 win. 

Mike Gillislee was a healthy scratch against the Broncos on Sunday night, giving the Patriots four active backs: Dion Lewis, James White, Rex Burkhead and Brandon Bolden. They combined for 99 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries, and they caught six passes for 38 yards and two touchdowns. 

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Gillislee averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry in New England's two games leading up to the matchup in Denver. And while he gives the Patriots a different kind of runner as the team's "big back," the Patriots were OK going without him against a stout run defense. 

Lewis (21 snaps) started the game and ran with good power -- particularly on his eight-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, during which he carried Aqib Talib about four yards into the end zone. 

Burkhead (36 snaps) came in after Lewis opened the game, catching two passes on his first two snaps, including a 14-yard touchdown. Burkhead ended up leading the position group in playing time, and for the third consecutive game since coming back from a rib injury, he saw his workload increase. 

White (11 snaps) saw five touches, the last of which was an eight-yard touchdown on an option route that completely shook linebacker Will Parks. 

The Patriots invested in the running back position this offseason when they signed both Burkhead and Gillislee. Now they have more backs than they know what to do with. 

Bolden is active on a weekly basis for what he gives the team in the kicking game, but he's no longer the only back who contributes on special teams. Burkhead made two tackles as a member of the kickoff team, and he blocked a punt that helped set up a field goal. Lewis, meanwhile, returned a kick 103 yards for a score. 

It's a dynamic group that can run, catch and chip in on "teams," and they put on display their varied skill sets Sunday night. 

Though Lewis has seemingly taken on any role that Gillislee (who isn't used as a receiver and doesn't play special teams) might handle, the Patriots may opt to bring Gillislee back into the fold when they see a matchup that might favor a bigger back. And if they do, the league will see they have yet another wrinkle to their running game. 

As it is, it's already a headache, as Sunday night's performance showed. 

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Patriots midseason awards: Part One

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Patriots midseason awards: Part One

The season is halfway over and the Patriots are on their bye week, so what better time for midseason superlatives? In the first of a three-part series, Phil Perry and Tom E. Curran and Mike Giardi look at some of the best -- and worst -- on-field occurences so far in 2017.

PART TWO: Midseason awards | PART THREE: What's worked . . . and what hasn't

BEST PLAY OF THE YEAR

PHIL PERRY: The Tom Brady-to-Brandin Cooks game-winning touchdown against the Texans. Brady's execution was flawless as he pumped to hold off the safety, took a huge shot, and still threw a dime. For Cooks, it was an acknowledgement that he was in the circle of trust. Not many game-winners over the course of the season, so this one is the easy choice in my opinion.

TOM E. CURRAN: Brady-to-Cooks, but Phil got there first. So I’ll go with Gronk’s 53-yard TD against the Saints. Brady heaved it to him and Gronk skedaddled and sidestepped his way to a TD that indicated he was indeed back from his back.

MIKE GIARDI: I have watched the 27-yard completion from Tom Brady to James White from Sunday’s game with the Chargers at least 15 times, and we also featured it on Monday Night Patriots. It didn’t win the game, like Brandin Cooks versus the Texans, but it combined terrific pocket awareness by Tom Brady; left tackle Nate Solder engaging one of the best pass rushers in the game, Joey Bosa, for five or six seconds, and then White first chipping Melvin Ingram and then working hard to uncover as Brady moved around. The throw was spot on. The play was sexy. It really was.

WORST PLAY OF THE YEAR

PHIL PERRY:  Kareem Hunt's 58-yard fourth-quarter run in the season-opening loss to the Chiefs. The Patriots were down one score (35-27) with 4:15 left in the game, when Hunt went streaking down the sideline on a simple toss play. Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts took bad angles in pursuit. Malcolm Butler and Patrick Chung were blocked easily. If not for Devin McCourty chasing Hunt down, it would have gone for a 79-yard score. One play later, Charcandrick West was in the end zone and the game was effectively over. Afterwards, perhaps with this sequence in mind, Tom Brady questioned the team's attitude and competitiveness.

TOM E. CURRAN: Devin Funchess’ 10-yard reception from Cam Newton in Week 4 in which Funchess ran unmolested off the line and into the end zone with nary a Patriot in pursuit. 

 

MIKE GIARDI: Which play from the Carolina game do you want to go with? I’ll pick the screen to Fozzy Whittaker in which every single Patriot defender on the offensive left/defensive right vacated the area as if someone launched tear gas into the area. Elandon Roberts. Devin McCourty. Stephen Gilmore. It was the lowest point for a defense that had a dozen or so of those plays over the first month of the season. I still can’t get over Gilmore -- the last player remaining on that side of the field -- just tearing ass to chase rookie Christian McCaffrey. Staggering. And Cam Newton could have easily flipped it the tight end, who was also all by himself. 

BEST GAME

PHIL PERRY: The Week 7 win over the Falcons. In prime time, against what was thought to be a very good offense, the much-maligned Patriots defense held Atlanta to one score. And the biggest question mark on the other side of the ball -- the offensive line -- showed signs of turning the corner. We may look back at that night as the night things finally got on track for good.

 

TOM E. CURRAN: Patriots over Texans Week 3. Five lead changes, a preview of how damn good Deshaun Watson might be and a fourth-quarter comeback win, 36-33. Good stuff.

 

MIKE GIARDI: No brainer. It’s the Atlanta game. It didn’t have the most points or most explosive plays, but it was Patriot football. Clinical, emotional, suffocating and there was never, ever a doubt, despite the talent on the other sideline. If the Pats could play nine more games like this year, I’d sign up for it. I’m sure Bill Belichick would, too.

 

TOUGHEST OPPOSING PLAYER

PHIL PERRY: Deshaun Watson. Mobile. Tough. Accurate enough. We didn't know it ahead of time, but Watson was a matchup nightmare for the Patriots in Week 3. He was able to take advantage of a secondary still finding itself, and he had all kinds of time to do it based on his own quickness and the absence of a devastating Patriots pass-rush. 

 

TOM E. CURRAN: Alex Smith. Ya boy Al Smith kick-started his 2017 with a 28-for-35, 368-yard, four-touchdown performance in the season opener and he hasn’t slowed down since.

 

MIKE GIARDI: To this point? It’s gotta be Watson. The Texans quarterback had his team poised for a huge win at Gillette if not for the heroics of Tom Brady and Brandin Cooks. Watson was as slippery as a snake covered in axel grease. Pats defenders had one shot after another to take him down for a big loss and Watson slithered in and out of their grasp to make one big play after another. His calmness under pressure comes as no surprise. Watson did this in college for years. But he’s made the seamless transition to the NFL and despite some of the analytic sites not loving him, Watson has given the Texans hope at that position, something they haven’t had maybe ever. I’m actually disappointed that JJ Watt and Whitney Mercilus are done for the year. I wanted to see Houston come to Foxboro in January and Watson is a big reason why.

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