Rex Burkhead

Steelers could pose problems if Patriots plan to lean on backs in the passing game

Steelers could pose problems if Patriots plan to lean on backs in the passing game

FOXBORO - As we get closer and closer to kickoff between the Patriots and Steelers on Sunday night, it's fair to wonder how Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels are going to move the football through the air. 

We've heard both Bill Belichick and Brady suggest that we should keep our expectations for the team's receivers in check early on this season since so many of them either missed huge chunks of time or saw limited practice snaps with Brady this summer.

You'd assume Julian Edelman will hit the ground running. You'd assume Phillip Dorsett is a steady No. 3 or 4 option. But when it comes to Josh Gordon, Demaryius Thomas (on the injury report with a hamstring issue), Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski, it's hard to know what the Patriots are getting at wideout. 

At tight end, Ryan Izzo is the only healthy player at Brady's disposal. While he had some success as a receiver in preseason, he's not a dynamic athlete who's likely to post huge numbers in his first regular-season action as a pro. 

That leaves the running backs. 

And that position may be what saves the Patriots passing attack as their receivers get their feet under them in 2019. McDaniels has plenty of pass-catching threats like James White, Rex Burkhead and Damien Harris. Even Sony Michel -- the skill position player with the most drastic run-pass splits in football in 2018 -- has shown some receiver chops this summer. The versatility of the unit is part of the reason the Patriots have allocated more active-roster cap dollars to backs than any other team in football.

So, we should expect White to see somewhere in the range of double-digit targets in the opener? Maybe another five or six spread out to others at the position? Right?

Turns out Pittsburgh might be well-suited to stop them.

The Steelers drafted speedy linebacker Devin Bush at No. 10 overall in the spring. Reports out of Pittsburgh suggest he'll be used as a specialty sub-situation 'backer, which makes sense since he's probably one of the NFL's best athletes at the position already. Vince Williams looks like an option for them against heavier offensive personnel groupings, and free-agent acquisition Mark Barron -- the safety-turned-linebacker the Patriots saw in Super Bowl LIII as a member of the Rams -- is their every-down guy. 

"I think a lot of teams have more hybrid-type roles than probably what they were when I first started, where there was a base defense and a sub defense," Brady said Wednesday. "Now I think we have a lot of those guys that can rush, that can cover. Guys like Mark Barron started in the secondary at Tampa, and now plays linebacker, played linebacker for the Rams last year. So, we have experience with those type of players. 

"We have backs that catch a lot of passes, line up in a lot of different spots, tight ends that line up in a lot of different spots. So, it's more of a game of that now. There's more personnel groupings, guys are utilized formationing, and they're finding defenders to counteract the skill set of the offensive players too. You know, you have a tight end that's a great run blocker and a great pass catcher, well now they have people to cover that guy, but also play against the run too. 

"That goes for linebackers, secondary types, but people are trying to use their best athletes out there and get as much skill and size as they can to create matchups, whatever they feel are the best to help their team win."

Barron is the definition of a hybrid given his background. As a key piece to what the Rams did defensively last season. In the Super Bowl, the Patriots completed just three passes to running backs on eight targets for a total of 20 yards. Turn the clock back a little further to when the Patriots went against the Steelers in December, before Mike Tomlin's defense got more athletic at the second level, and the Patriots picked up only 33 yards on 10 targets to White and Burkhead.

The Patriots could try to get the Steelers to go lighter at linebacker with Barron and Bush on the field -- deploying their 11-personnel grouping might work -- in order to run the football. That's what they did against LA's lighter front in the Super Bowl. But the Steelers have been stout against the run in the recent past as well. With a front that features big-bodied linemen Cam Heyward, Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt, they were sixth in the league in rush yards allowed per game in 2018 and ninth in the league in rush yards allowed per attempt. 

The Patriots did, however, run it well against them late last season in their Week 15 loss. On 19 attempts, they picked up 96 yards (an average of 5.1 yards per attempt) -- 58 of which came after contact.

The answer then? It'll probably be for the Patriots to stick with what we think will be their bread and butter: the running game. When they are forced to throw, attacking Steven Nelson and former AAF safety Kameron Kelly probably won't be a bad idea. 

Eventually, it'll make sense to pepper Patriots backs in the passing game. But this week, with Pittsburgh's speed at the second level, that might be tougher than most.

 

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Believe it or not: Patriots among the NFL's biggest spenders at running back

Believe it or not: Patriots among the NFL's biggest spenders at running back

FOXBORO — In the real world, Ezekiel Elliott's new contract with the Cowboys will line his pockets and ratchet up the expectations in Dallas. Online, it'll stoke the flames of football's most interminable debate: Are running backs worth it?

Are they worth high-end contracts like the ones given to Elliott, Le'Veon Bell and Todd Gurley? Are they worth being selected at the top of the draft when there are talented quarterbacks available, as Saquon Barkley was when he went No. 2 overall in 2018? 

The numbers would suggest that paying someone like Elliott $90 million over six years isn't the best investment strategy. The numbers would suggest that going with a running back at the top of the draft instead of taking a shot on a potential franchise quarterback is flawed.

But take a look at what the Patriots have done at the running back position. 

Even after Elliott got his new deal, it's Bill Belichick who's spending more cap dollars on his running back room than anyone else. According to Spotrac, the Patriots have $12.23 million in active roster cap space devoted to their five running backs this season, which is tops in the league. (Over The Cap points out the Patriots are the third-biggest cap-dollar spenders on the running back position this season behind the Niners and Texans, whose highest-paid backs are on injured reserve and not active. Either way, New England is heavily invested at that spot.)

But the Patriots have doled out their money in a way that breaks from other teams who are in the top-five when it comes to running back spending. Unlike the Rams with Gurley or the Jets with Bell, the Patriots have taken a many-hands-makes-light-work approach.

Last year's first-rounder Sony Michel counts $2.19 million against the cap this season. James White carries a cap hit of $4.63 million. Rex Burkhead's cap number is $3 million. Special-teamer Brandon Bolden counts $1.7 against the cap in 2019, and third-round rookie Damien Harris counts $716,534 against the cap. 

Despite having so much invested in running backs this season, the Patriots don't have a single player with a top-10 cap hit at the position. They do have three inside the top-25, though, as White ranks 13th, Burkhead 19th and Michel is 24th.

But why? In a league that has seemingly proven that running back production is replaceable — take a look at how well James Conner ran in Pittsburgh last season in place of Bell, or how well C.J. Anderson ran for the Rams — why would the Patriots be shelling out more to running backs than the rest of the league? 

Throwing numbers at that group makes sense for myriad reasons for Belichick. Given the injury rate at the position, given that Tom Brady is 42, and given that it's in the team's best interest to keep Brady upright, having several capable backs to carry the load for a run-heavy attack is logical. 

Still, this also seems like an instance of Belichick, an economics major at Wesleyan, finding another NFL market inefficiency.

Despite Barkley going No. 2 overall and Elliott getting paid top dollar, it looks like the league has generally agreed upon the fact that paying one back huge money isn't wise. Look at what happened to Gurley's health soon after signing and it's not all that difficult to see why the Chargers would hesitate to hand Melvin Gordon an exorbitant salary. The Jets fired general manager Mike Maccagnan after he inked Bell, and there were rumblings that new head coach Adam Gase wasn't thrilled that Bell was on his roster at that price.

Instead, what's apparently about to become more popular across the league is loading up on tight ends and deploying the "12 personnel" packages the Patriots fell in love with in 2010. In a copycat league, it would make sense for teams to try to do what Belichick did with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez a decade ago, or what the Eagles are doing with Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, or what the Colts are doing with Jack Doyle and Eric Ebron. 

We'll see if that becomes reality in 2019, as the average cap dollars spent at tight end — when you look at those dollars as a percentage of the overall cap — haven't veered much in the last six years. (It's consistently hovered around 3 to 4 percent across the league.)

But if teams start using "12 personnel" more often, if they start adding bodies to their tight end rooms, and if they start handing their top tight ends bigger contracts, then it looks like the Patriots will be on the opposite end of that trend. At least at the moment.

With only Ryan Izzo and Matt LaCosse on the roster right now, the Patriots rank 31st in tight end salary cap spending for 2019. Even when Ben Watson returns from suspension, his $2.46 million cap hit will only bump the Patriots to 25th in cap spending at the position this season. They led the league in tight end spending last year and were fourth in 2017 with Gronkowski on the roster. 

So while the league might be leaning toward using tight ends more frequently and potentially paying them more as a result, the Patriots appear to have gone in the opposite direction post-Gronk. While the league has information that would suggest running backs are replaceable, the Patriots are investing in them more and more; they were seventh in running back cap spending in 2018 and fourth in 2017.

How things play out this season will tell us how Belichick's backs-over-tight-ends approach will work. But we can say this: At least he's consistent. He consistently changes his approach, even when he's had success. He consistently shifts gears in a league that has long been plagued by groupthink.

Zigging when others zag has worked for Belichick before. It worked when he turned to a 3-4 front in his early days with the Patriots. It worked when he hammered "12 personnel" more than most. It's worked as he's leaned on a fullback while the NFL has become obsessed with the spread. How he's allocating his resources at running back and tight end just seems to be the latest example. 

Pats to wear this SB LIII patch vs. Steelers>>>>>

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Patriots roster reset: Running back depth chart

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File Photo

Patriots roster reset: Running back depth chart

Though Sony Michel is entering camp on the physically unable to perform list, New England's backfield projects to be one of its strengths, like it was in 2018. 

Michel, who rushed for 931 yards and six touchdowns last year — and added six more in three postseason games — will likely return to the lead back role once he recovers from a knee procedure. Still, the Pats have the depth to replace his production if he misses extended time. 

Rex Burkhead and James White are also returning to Foxboro, as well as fullback James Develin. The Patriots also signed familiar face Brandon Bolden, who can contribute on special teams. 

Most notably, the Pats used their third round pick on Damien Harris, a four-year running back out of Alabama, seemingly as insurance for Michel. Bill Belichick's well-documented friendship with Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban may have contributed in the Patriots decision to draft Harris. 

In training camp, undrafted rookie out of LSU Nick Brossette and versatile offensive weapon Jakob Johnson will compete for touches. Johnson last played tight end in Germany. 

Full list of RBs: 
Sony Michel
Damien Harris
James White
Rex Burkhead
James Develin
Brandon Bolden
Nick Brossette
Jakob Johnson

Last year, New England carried four running backs including Develin, plus Jeremy Hill and Kenjon Barner. In 2019, the running back depth chart should be mostly set in stone, with Michel, Harris, White, Burkhead and Develin likely all locks to make the 53-man roster. 

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