Thursday, December 17, 2015

Bolden Set For Extended Run As Lead Back

Brandon Bolden deserves this chance.

Each of the past four seasons, the undrafted Bolden fought his way onto the New England Patriots' 53 man roster - mainly due to his prowess as a four core special teamer, tending to his duties while watching a seemingly endless procession of running backs make their way through Bill Belichick's revolving door... a rookie in 2012 playing behind sophomores Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, who platooned with fan favorite Danny Woodhead. In 2013 and 2014 it was the three-headed monster of Ridley, Vereen and newly acquired LeGarrette Blount.

Hell, even training camp this season was loaded down with backs. Ridley and Vereen were both shown the door, but the team brought in former Browns and Eagles benchwarmer Dion Lewis and former Saints' passing back Travaris Cadet while retaining the services of Blount and giving extra snaps to second-year change-of-pace back James White.

Belichick initially kept all five backs on the roster, but this time with Bolden the senior member of the committee - however, the team sliced Cadet because he couldn't pick up the blitz to save his life, then Lewis went down with an ACL and then Blount was lost for the season with a bum hip, leaving just Bolden and White to carry the load.

Truth be told, there really wasn't a more dependable back on the roster than Bolden, who has never disappointed when called upon to carry the rock.

 In his fourth season out of Ole' Miss, the 5' 11", 220 pounder has averaged 4.3 yards on 177 carries and has accounted for 300 yards on 35 receptions in spot duty throughout his career - this after a successful college career, averaging 5.3 yards per carry in amassing 2600 yards and 27 touchdowns, also hauling in 76 passes for over 800 yards and six touchdowns - and all against run-tough SEC defenses.

So there's little doubt that Bolden would be able to handle an increase in his workload - even becoming the Patriots' abbreviated version of a bell cow - though to listen to Belichick, one would have to think he might have an issue with it.

"He's been a four down player for us" the Dark Master said recently, "He's played the role of the big back for us, he's played the role of a sub back, and he's played well for us in the kicking game. I think it would be hard to increase each role."

Belichick paused as if pacing his word count, then continued.

"It's possible." he said, thoughtfully. "But I think it would be hard, realistically to do that, but maybe it needs to be done. Or maybe you just increase one and decrease another. I think we're going to have to figure that out."

Indeed, figure it out. But one needs to keep in mind the struggles that the Patriots have had on special teams the past three weeks, and wonder aloud if the kicking game can afford to have Bolden's role cut back significantly, if at all. That was probably the thinking behind the team signing former Bronco Montee Ball to the practice squad and for having a cup of coffee with grizzled veteran back Steven Jackson over the past couple of days.

Jackson left town with no deal and Ball remains on the practice squad, which means that in all likelihood, Bolden will be the leading man when the curtain opens on this Sunday's game against the Tennessee Titans at Gillette Stadium, but with White garnering most of the snaps in the pass-heavy Patriots' offense.

White and Ball played together in college at Wisconsin, which makes for an intriguing subplot.

During Ball's senior season with the Badgers, he rumbled for over 1800 yards and 22 touchdowns, while White played to role of change-of-pace back while gaining 800 yards and scoring 12 times. Of course, Ball went on to Denver, where he followed the lead of Wisconsin backs before him, flaming out in two short seasons.

White, on the other hand, went on to record over 4000 rushing yards in his part-time role with the Badgers, with an insane 6.2 yards per carry average while handling the passing back role as well, his numbers comparable to those of Bolden's in college.

Of the three, Bolden has the most diverse skill set combined with good size and decent speed, and the Patriots need all of that from him. In fact, if Belichick can work out Bolden's snap count between the backfield and all four units on special teams, Bolden offers something to the lineup that none of the other running backs could...

...because Belichick wasn't just blowing our figurative skirts up when he praised Bolden for being a four down back. He runs for Power and has the speed to turn the corner, is outstanding in blitz recognition and pick up and is skilled in the Patriots' concept-driven passing scheme. To finally have him in a game as the lead back presents issues for the opposing defenses that Blount did not, and White can not.

When Blount is in the game, the defenses know that he rarely curls into the pattern, so instead of the strong safety mirroring him at the snap, he can plug a gap or blitz. When White is in the game, the opposition knows that he most likely isn't going to be getting many carries between the tackles, so they will break down into a nickle or dime and count on their pass rush to provide pressure.

But with Bolden, the defense will have to be ready for any scenario, and will be forced to defend the entire field.

He sounds like a complete back, one capable of carrying a heavy load for the New England offense, and he has proven his worth in spot duty over the past four seasons - but how will he hold up when being THE man in the Patriots' backfield?

Belichick appears to be willing to find out, and if he can use Bolden's entire skill set to keep the defense off balance, perhaps some good will have come out of all of these injuries.

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