Patriots

Can the Patriots count on injury prone Rex Burkhead?

Can the Patriots count on injury prone Rex Burkhead?

The Patriots have at least six games remaining in the 2018 season.

Whether they can add a game or two to that total and get to the Conference Championship and/or Super Bowl largely depends on their running game. And their running game depends on two players who – while talented – aren’t durable.

I almost feel badly saying that about Sony Michel. The kid came back Sunday from having his head pulled back to his heels and still closed out the win over the Jets with a flourish.

But facts is facts. The knee, ankle and forearm injuries he dealt with in college, the ominous reports of a “bone-on-bone” knee condition prior to the draft, the knee injury that sidelined him through preseason and the knee injury that came against the Bears, all of it underscores that Michel – for all his talent – will probably be dealing with something down the stretch.

If and when he does, the Patriots will turn to Rex Burkhead. Monday, the Patriots activated Burkhead from IR. He’s been out with a neck injury suffered against Detroit in Week 3.

Since signing with the Patriots as a free agent prior to 2017, Burkhead’s played in 15 of a possible 29 games.

Can the Patriots take two injury-prone guys, meld them together and hitch their wagon to them? If you like this team, then you have to hope so.

MORE PATRIOTS

NFL running back is a dangerous job. Injuries are inevitable. The only way they can be mitigated is by slicing the workload.

When available, the Patriots have ridden Michel fairly hard.  Four of the eight games he’s played he’s had more than 18 carries, three times he’s been over 20. He had one game in his final two years at Georgia where he carried more than 20 times.

The Patriots are giving him the ball because they have to. Their backup between-the-tackles runner has become wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. James White is a change-up back and too valuable in the passing game to be running into the middle of a defensive line on short yardage.

They’ve patched it together well enough to win seven of eight – and that shouldn’t be undervalued – but it’s not sustainable.

That’s why Burkhead’s return is so valuable. The talent is obviously there. He showed it with Cincinnati down the stretch in 2016.

Before November 27 of that season, Burkhead – a sixth-round pick out of Nebraska - was a special-teamer/garbage-time player. He’d had 13 carries in the 31 games he was active. He just didn’t get on the field.

But when the lead backs in Cincy -- Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard -- got dinged just about two years ago, the Bengals turned to Burkhead. Over the final six games, he carried 68 times for 305 yards including 27 times for 119 yards and two touchdowns in the 2016 season finale in his only start.

MORE PATRIOTS

I feel like I’ve mentioned that game almost as much as the Snow Bowl.

And that’s because it’s the lone performance arguing that Burkhead can carry the load as a between-the-tackles back with superior pass-catching skills.

It’s, in part, what led the Patriots to sign him to a one-year deal in 2017 and put him at the top of the depth chart, drawing the ire of Dion Lewis. It’s, in part, what led them to re-sign Burkhead to a three-year, $9M deal this past offseason, drawing the further ire of Dion Lewis who – snubbed for a lucrative deal here – went and signed with Tennessee for four years and $19M.

Lewis said the Patriots “went cheap” in passing him over. The implication is that Burkhead and Jeremy Hill (remember him?) were the cheap options and that he could have given them more.

Lewis isn’t exactly Cal Ripken but right now, his point is well-made. Hill – who looked terrific in the preseason until he blew out his ACL – couldn’t make a contribution. Burkhead’s been on the field for nine quarters.

Now, though, Burkhead’s got a chance for rebuttal.

More important, he’s got a chance to take carries from Michel, touches from White and Julian Edelman in the passing game and generally just be the added hands and legs that can lighten the load for everyone.

If everything goes to the Patriots plan, the snow will be piled deep and the year will be a couple of weeks old and we’ll be writing about Burkhead’s invaluable contributions down the stretch.

He’s got to buck some recent history to make that happen.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Tom Brady explains why he's become 'much more guarded' with media

Tom Brady explains why he's become 'much more guarded' with media

Tom Brady isn't just frustrated with the New England Patriots' offense. He's frustrated with the people who talk about his frustration with the Patriots' offense.

E! News aired a 30-minute profile of the Patriots quarterback Wednesday night on its "In the Room" show, which featured host Jason Kennedy's exclusive interview with Brady.

And ironically, the first item Brady discussed was how much he dislikes interviews.

"I'd rather run out in front of 80,000 people and throw a football," Brady told Kennedy.

Brady then explained why he's become more careful with what he says on record.


"I've become much more guarded with the media, just because everyone is looking to (say), 'I gotcha, man! You said that!' " Brady said. "I definitely respect my private life, because it's very important to me, and it's very sacred."

"Especially in today's age it's very tricky, is what is too much exposure for people? Now everyone can show everything, and that's not my personality, which is why I won't do that.

"But I am a public person at this point based on my career, but there's still things that I want to just keep for myself so I can enjoy them without sharing them with anyone else."

Brady's wariness is understandable in a sense: He's one of the most heavily-scrutinized athletes in the world whose comments are always being dissected. (How does Brady REALLY feel about his rookie wide receivers?)

It's also why the 42-year-old has adopted an apparent solution: Say less to reporters and more on Facebook and Twitter, where he can control his own narrative.

This isn't the first time this season Brady has expressed his disregard for the media, and if New England hits any more bumps in the road down the stretch, that relationship likely won't improve.

Check out Brady's full interview with Kennedy here.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

Reality check: What Patriots do well offensively right now ain't sexy

Reality check: What Patriots do well offensively right now ain't sexy

It's a question we've tried to answer all season: What do the Patriots do well offensively?

They haven't been the ground-and-pound machine they were at the end of 2018. They haven't been the spread-it-out-and-chuck-it attack we thought they might morph into.

So what are they good at?

If you listen to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, he'll tell you. It's not glamorous.

"Taking care of the football has historically been a thing we've done well and certainly is a big factor to winning and losing," McDaniels said this week. "The other night [in Houston] the one turnover seemed to really flip the game a little bit there in the first half. But we've done that decent, and we have to continue to do that well. Certainly, that's going to be a huge factor in this game this week against Kansas City.

"Protecting the quarterback, and not going backwards in the running game, and trying to stay out of long-yardage situations to improve your chances on third down . . . There were times the other day when we were pretty good in that area. We tried to keep it in third-and-manageable and actually converted a decent chunk of third downs the other day, too."

They don't turn it over. They don't take sacks.

Tom Brady throwing the football at the feet of his offensive linemen on a screen isn't going to make a season-long highlight reel anytime soon. Neither is James White holding on tight to the football with a defensive back trying to punch it free. 

But that is the state of the Patriots offense at the moment. What they do best isn't necessarily procuring good outcomes, it's avoiding bad ones.

Whether or not it's enough to get the Patriots back to where they were at the end of last season remains to be seen. Their defense has been good enough, and scored points frequently enough, that the team is 10-2 and sixth in the league in scoring (26.8 points per game).

The numbers do, however, support McDaniels' assessment of where the offense is effective right now.

The Patriots are plus-18 in the turnover department (best in the league) with just 11 total giveaways (fourth in the league). They have seven interceptions as a team, and they've lost only four fumbles.

Their sack numbers are borderline astounding. No one in the NFL has had more pass attempts than Brady (486), and only Jameis Winston has dropped back to pass more (533) than Brady has (508). Yet, Brady has only been sacked 21 times. That's 24th in the NFL.

Aside from a scheme that encourages Brady to get the ball out of his hands quickly (he's seventh-quickest to get rid of the football, on average, according to Pro Football Focus), Brady also leads the league in throwaways with 30. That number is already the highest Brady's posted going back to 2006, per PFF.

"I’m throwing it away because I don’t want to take a sack," Brady said when asked about his throwaway total last week. "So, I think part of it’s just you feel like you have an opportunity on the play, and if you don’t have that, then I think negative plays actually have a big impact on the game. Turnovers and negative plays I think really keep you from winning games. 

"So, if you can drop-back pass, because I’m not really a scrambler...I mean, I have scrambled in the past. I wouldn’t say I never scramble, I’m just not really that much of a scrambler. But, if I’m going to hold it back there, then usually good things aren’t going to happen. So, I try to throw the ball away to save plays and live for the next down."

Avoiding those negative pass plays has helped the Patriots maintain reasonable down-and-distance scenarios over the course of the season -- even when their offense hasn't been as potent as Brady would like. 

They're fourth in the league in terms of the number of manageable third-down situations they've faced this year. (For our purposes, we'll define "manageable" as third-and-5 or less.)

The Patriots have run more plays (840) and more third-down plays (176) than any offense in football this season. So when looking at their third-and-manageable situations as a percentage of their overall third-down plays, they're 18th in the NFL when it comes to staying in manageable situations.

That ranking would indicate that keeping themselves in good third-down scenarios is not exactly a strength. But that they've had that many plays to begin with, that they've been able to maintain possession as they have, speaks to a certain level of offensive effectiveness. 

It's just not the type of effectiveness that Brady, McDaniels and the Patriots are used to. They've been a top-six offense each of the last four seasons in terms of yards per game. They've been a top-10 team in that category almost every year going back to 2004. The only two years they weren't -- 2014 and 2006 -- they were 11th. 

This year, they're 14th.

"I think there's a lot of things that you could look at that you could say we could improve on," McDaniels said. "Certainly, that's the truth. I think it's been the truth most seasons that I've ever coached. But, at the end of the day, there are certain things that we have to do well in order to give our team the best chance to be successful, some of which we've done decent throughout the course of the year and some of which we certainly need to do better."

The things they've done well so far have been the things they need to do to win. And they've won quite a bit. But when they haven't, the fact that they can't do more has been readily apparent.

"I think the bottom line is you have to feel like you have an opportunity to improve in each area at practice each week, and each week's a new challenge," McDaniels said. "We certainly want to try to take care of the ball, we certainly want to try to keep the ball moving forward, we certainly want to improve on third down and in the red zone, two-minute offense, those situational plays that can certainly change the outcome of a drive or a quarter or the half of the game. 

"I start with me. I can do a better job of trying to do that and that's what my focus is on, and hopefully, we can make some strides and improve in a lot of areas this week as well."

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.