Sunday, August 20, 2017

Running Backs Featured For Patriots In Loss To Texans

The New England Patriots running back stable is ridiculously deep.

In fact, it's deeper than anyone thought.

Rex Burkhead shined in his Patriots' debut, hitting the hole hard in his seven carries and displaying a natural catching rhythm that will probably earn him the starting nod when the games start to count, then Dion Lewis and D. J. Foster followed up with impressive performances, but three turnovers by New England signal callers doomed New England to their second preseason loss in as many games...

...dropping a 27-23 decision to the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on Saturday in a contest that did little to clear up a convoluted depth chart at just about every position, and in some cases - particularly at running back - made the story a little more hazy.

Not from poor play, but from solid effort by all five backs that played and a breakout campaign for Foster who could find himself on the opening day roster if projected power back Mike Gillislee's hamstring lands him on the Injured List, and Brandon Bolden put himself solidly on the map with some opportunistic blasts through the middle of the Texans' run defense.

The thing about preseason games is that the game plan is usually simply to ride the waves and take advantage of each circumstance that comes along as a coaching point - heaven knows there were plenty of those in the second exhibition game for both teams - but it seemed that Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick's purpose for his offense was to remain as vanilla as possible, and that means mixing the running game with the short passing game.

And that means the spotlight was squarely on his running backs.

First, it seems he wanted to see how Burkhead handled picking up the blitz in live game action, then how fluid Lewis looked a full year removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL - and he got what he needed when Burkhead stoned an aggressive stunt-blitz on linebacker Brian Cushing to allow quarterback Tom Brady a chance to step into a throw, and Lewis displayed a nice combination of power and elusiveness, planting hard and exploding into the crease.

Typically, where the Patriots' backs did most of their heavy damage was through the air, however, combining for 115 yards and two touchdowns on nine receptions, though their 110 yards on the ground shouldn't be overlooked, nor should the fact that the offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels kept feeding them the ball, their 38 combined touches counting for exactly half of the plays run by the Patriots offense on the evening...

...which included just a few snaps for passing back James White, who is firmly entrenched as the Patriots' go-to guy as he played only with the first-team, then enjoyed the rest of the night watching his stable-mates go to work on the league's top-rated defense.

Quarterback Tom Brady saw his first action of the preseason, playing two series and contributing 69 yards on six completions and a touchdown before yielding to backup Jimmy Garoppolo, who played the majority of the game and had an up-and-down performance, throwing for 145 yards and a touchdown, but also suffered a strip sack and floated a throwaway along the sidelines, having it picked off in comical fashion.

Jacoby Brissett finished the game and showed much better decision-making skills than he did in the first preseason game, but still couldn't finish off a comeback for the second week in a row - and, as a matter of fact, other than the performance of the running backs and some solid work on the interior of the offensive line, the Patriots put in a relatively sloppy performance on offense.

Brady also made a poor decision on a throw to the sidelines which was originally ruled as an interception, but overturned on replay.  He recovered from his near-pick to lead the offense to their first touchdown, finding Burkhead wide open over the middle for a 22-yard pitch and catch in which the Nebraska product displayed smooth route running, soft, sure hands and enough speed to split the seam after the catch and sprint into the end zone untouched.

Garoppolo didn't get the chance to atone for his gaffe along the sidelines as he was replaced by Brissett on the next series, but did offer up an explanation.

" I avoided the D-end at first and was just trying to throw it away, but I didn't get enough on it." Garoppolo said after the game, "It was just a bad play."

Garoppolo also tried to take blame for the strip sack that gave the Texans excellent field position and led to a Houston field goal, and while it is his responsibility to protect the football, being blindsided by an unfettered linebacker has it's consequences.

"It's just my fault.  I'm the quarterback."

Garoppolo did have many more bright moments than dim ones, going 15 of 23 for 145 yards and leading the charge to the Patriots' final score, a 25-yard crosser to Foster, who showed speed and toughness, racing through the secondary after taking the short toss from Garoppolo and breaking the plane of the end zone while fighting through a big shot from safety Eddie Pleasant.

Foster may have had the most impressive night of anyone on the offense, carrying the ball six times for 23 yards and catching four balls for 52 yards and the touchdown, albeit against the second and third levels of the Texans' defense - while Bolden, normally a core special teamer, picked up 33 yards on eight stiff-looking carries.

Brissett also had the ball knocked out of his hand from behind just as he was about to fire one of his rockets into the end zone with time ticking down under one minute to play, the momentum from his throwing motion propelling the ball through the end zone for a touchback to end a Patriots comeback bid seven yards short.

Adding intrigue to the Patriots' high-class running back situation is the mystery surrounding free agent addition Mike Gillislee, whose hamstring injury suffered in OTA's has kept him from participating in practices and, obviously, from games, which is likely the reason behind the rest of the backs being focused on in Saturday night's contest... in which Belichick has to be pleased with the performance of his backfield and confident that they can fulfill their role on offense as dual threats as runners and pass catchers, and may have helped him make up his mind on Gillislee's short-term future in New England.

The upside, of course, is that Belichick can safely place Gillislee on the injured-reserved list with a designation to return, meaning that he can activate the power back in the middle of November after he's had time to let the hamstring properly heal, then unleashing him with fresh legs on worn down opponents during the stretch run to the post-season - possibly opening the door for a guy like Foster to land on the roster in the interim.

When you have a running back kennel that features so much talent, you can afford to do such things.

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