Tuesday, November 10, 2015

New England Patriots' Midseason Forum, Part 2 - Lewis' Contribution Leaves Remaining Backs Fresh

With rookie Shaq Mason clearing the way, running back LeGarrette Blount ran through the Redskins' defense
Most fans had never heard of Dion Lewis before he emerged as the winner of the passing back role with the New England Patriots.

So how in the name of Chuck Fairbanks did the kid they call "Little Dirty" become such a be all-end all entity for the Patriots - so much so that panic buttons are being pressed all over weird little New England because the guy who most people never knew existed until two months ago was shelved for the season on Monday with a torn ACL?

When head ball coach Bill Belichick and his scouting staff commenced the team building process for 2015 before last season was even over, former Hoodie confidant (When Belichick was in Cleveland) and current Patriots "Assistant to the coaching staff" Michael Lombardi advised Belichick to sign Lewis to a Futures Contract, but the general feeling was that the Pitt product was little more than a change of pace back that was fighting for a roster spot.

At the beginning of the new league year, passing back Shane Vereen bolted for the New York Giants in free agency, leaving the passing back duties competition wide open, but with the thought that - worst case scenario - they could always go with their Plan A, which was actually putting into play the team's fourth-round draft pick from 2014, James White.

But Belichick never leaves himself without options, so he signed former New Orleans passing back Travaris Cadet to compete against White, with Lewis squarely in the background - but as OTA's concluded and training camp began, Lewis was clearly outperforming both, exploding onto the scene with such an impact that Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels started inventing ways to get him the ball...

And now in the wake of Lewis' season ending injury, the Patriots' passing back duties fall back to the guy who lost the job that was his to lose in the first place, the guy that was the Patriots' Plan A, before Lewis juked him right out of the job.

James White is no slouch. Splitting time with a guy named Melvin Gordon at Wisconsin in his senior year. White earned the moniker "Sweet Feet" with an occasional reference to the great Barry Sanders with the merging connotation "Barry White", as he was the lightning to Gordon's thunder in the always insanely powerful Badgers' running attack.

What, WHAT?  Many who read this right now are going to wonder if I've ever seen a football game in my entire life, referring to the seldom-used NFL counterpart of a redshirt freshman whose name frequently appears on Belichick's inactive list by such far-reaching portrayals...

But behind Wisconsin's mammoth offensive line that featured a wall blocking scheme, White ran for an average of 6.5 yards per carry, gaining 1444 yards on the ground and caught 39 balls for 300 yards - breaking more than a few ankles along the way.

White is a different back than Lewis - in fact, he's different from most running backs in that there is very little wasted motion in his cuts. His running style is compact and centrifugal, relying on a killer stutter step and leg drive to avoid the tackle with a short-area burst rather than being overly elusive. He is a patient runner and will wait for his blockers to open holes for him in the running game, and has a powerful jump cut to get through the hole quickly, particularly when cutting against the grain to his left.

He's not as flashy as Lewis - there are few players who are - but he is the guy that the Patriots expected to win the passing back job coming into training camp, and given the same opportunities, he could fill the "Vereen Role" at least adequately enough to keep that part of the play book open...

The passing back - or third down back, if you prefer - is a vital component of the Patriots' offense, but it's been since the beginning of the dynasty that they had employed the services of such a complete back as Lewis, and while how the position is going to look in the immediate future is unclear, at least the power running game is cranked up and rounding into form.

LeGarrette Blount is just ridiculous. He's about as elusive as a freight train, but he runs with a purpose and nary a defensive back wish to cross paths with him, at least not face-to-face.

In their Week 9 matchup with the Washington Redskins, and the Patriots' offensive line the football equivalent of pot luck, Blount powered through a Redskins' front seven that was desperate to stop him, the result of a wall blocking scheme that featured budding star Shaq Mason in a role that utilizes his freakish athleticism, pulling from his left guard position to lead Blount right down the Redskins' collective throats.

Tight ends Rob Gronkowski and big Michael Williams got involved as well, each taking turns pulling into the running lanes - typically Gronkowski to the left and Williams to the right, delivering wham blocks to seal out the linebackers trying to plug the gaps. The combination of the cast of drive blockers along the line, the tight ends driving  to the second level and Blount's road grading style is an imposing thing for Patriots opponents to game plan for, and is something that is going to set them apart from their foes down the stretch.

That is important to remember moving forward, because the power running game is essential to success of the offense, particularly when facing quality defenses in the post season, and when the weather dictates a more fundamental approach to the Erhardt-Perkins scheme.

Because of the presence of Lewis, Blount is working with a fresh set of wheels, as he's carried the ball just 98 times, his roll limited to the four-minute offense - and the crazy part is that 29 of those carries came in Sunday's win over Washington, so it's fair to say that with Blount, White (14 touches) and special teams' ace Brandon Bolden (12 touches), the Patriots backfield is a devently rested and fresh group.

At present, and other than rookie power back Joey Iosefa on the practice squad, the Patriots are working with just three running backs, so it is conceivable that some sort of depth move will be made at some point, but for now, it's good policy to see what the guys on your roster can give you before making an offer to one of the many free agents available.

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