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The Patriots’ newest trick is to crush teams with their running backs

Sony Michel, Damien Harris, and James White give Tom Brady one hell of a panic switch.

The NFL is leaning harder and harder into high-impact passing offenses. The Arizona Cardinals are so dedicated to throwing the ball they hired Kliff Kingsbury and selected two quarterbacks in the last two drafts. The Baltimore Ravens are currently searching for an assistant who can figure out if running backs even matter anymore.

The New England Patriots, however, took one look at a depth chart devoid of tight end talent and decided to invest in their running backs.

In a vacuum, Bill Belichick’s 2019 NFL Draft was a shotgun approach to adding the best talent he saw available. But while getting Tom Brady new blood to throw was expected to be a priority, the Patriots drafted as many wide receivers and tight ends (N’Keal Harry) as tailbacks (Damien Harris) at this year’s event.

Now New England enters the upcoming season with a potent backfield — and it’s time to wonder if restarting the Pats’ running game is Belichick’s next trend-bucking move.

A stacked backfield could be Belichick and the Patriots’ latest swerve

Belichick’s track record of success in New England has been a showcase of innovative departures from NFL norms. He transformed the Patriots’ free agent and trading approach from chasing stars to spreading cash over a series of lower-demand veterans who wound up playing significant roles (Mike Vrabel, Rob Ninkovich, Wes Welker, Danny Woodhead, so many, many more).

He leaned heavily into a running back platoon that emphasized receiving value out of the backfield while other teams still relied on clear-cut No. 1 tailbacks. He carved up defenses by weaponizing a two-tight end set and made multiple adjustments that forced the league to tighten up its rulebook in his wake.

It would be foolish to assume Belichick will turn away from his passing game with a still-productive Tom Brady at the helm, but his 2019 roster construction suggests this year’s Patriots will incorporate backs more than any since Brady’s first season as a starter in 2001. A stacked rotation led by postseason heroes James White and Sony Michel has become New England’s insurance policy in the event the 42-year-old quarterback finally crops up on Father Time’s to-do list.

Consider the team’s offseason. Josh Gordon’s future is up in the air after his latest indefinite NFL suspension. Cordarrelle Patterson was signed away by the Bears while Chris Hogan went to the Panthers. Probable Hall of Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski decided to retire. His understudy, Dwayne Allen, was released after making just 13 catches in two seasons with the team. Even third-stringer Jacob Hollister is gone, traded to Seattle for the price of a seventh-round draft pick.

In their place are a combination of unproven players with potential and veterans who may not be able to have a major impact this fall. First-round pick N’Keal Harry should have an immediate presence. Demaryius Thomas could help if he can fully recover from a torn Achilles at age 32. Low-cost free agent additions like Maurice Harris, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and a soon-to-be 39-year-old Ben Watson could contribute as well, but none are surefire fixes to New England’s lack of playmaking depth.

Meanwhile, the Patriots will likely have to cut a veteran or two at running back. Not counting undrafted free agent signee Nick Brossette, the Pats have five different backs on which they can rely — Michel, Harris, White, Rex Burkhead, and Brandon Bolden. Belichick hasn’t explicitly tipped his hand about a shift in his offensive philosophy for the upcoming season, but a group that versatile and deep is a statement unto itself.

Two young backs can shift the Patriots’ offensive focus to the ground

Belichick’s commitment to stocking a powerful and efficient running back stable has never been more apparent than the past two seasons. Between 2008 and 2017, he used just three draft picks on running backs. In the past two seasons he’s added a pair of runners in the third round or earlier, including the Patriots’ first first-round tailback since Laurence Maroney in 2006: Michel.

Michel was a revelation as a rookie, averaging more than 4.5 yards per carry and nearly 72 rushing yards per game. He was especially valuable in the postseason. While Brady fended off slow starts, lulls, and brain farts en route to throwing more interceptions than touchdown passes — his 85.8 playoff passer rating was nearly a dozen points lower than his regular-season mark — Michel was able to keep defenses guessing with 112 yards per game and touchdowns in each of New England’s three postseason wins.

That positive experience led Belichick back to the SEC for more. Alabama’s Harris is Michel’s next level of insulation, another Southern back from a successful platoon who’s used to splitting carries and making the most of his opportunities on the field. The angry-running Nick Saban acolyte shared duties with first-round pick Josh Jacobs, Bo Scarbrough, and Najee Harris in his four-year collegiate career, often stacking up as the team’s most efficient running back in that span.

Picking up Harris in the third round — especially with some useful tight end prospects still on the board — was a bit of a surprise, but it makes sense. He’s a stinging runner who gives opposing defenses one more wrinkle to worry about in offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ offense. He’s also the perfect running mate for Michel, whose 280 total carries between the regular season and playoffs last year were by far the most of his post-high school career.

Belichick has typically avoided a one-man band approach in the backfield since the salad days of Corey Dillon. Michel’s 209 rushes last regular season was the second-highest single-season total from a Patriots back since 2012, eclipsed only by a workhorse performance from 2016 LeGarrette Blount.

Harris, who measured in at 5’11 and 215 pounds in college like Michel, will be a worthy stand-in for the second-year back. He’s not as explosive, but he runs well between the tackles and should be effective in stretches.

That duo is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Pats’ rushing talent

Both Michel and Harris run well between the tackles, which is exactly where New England’s strength lies. The interior trio of Shaq Mason, David Andrews, and Joe Thuney earned rave reviews for keeping Brady off the turf through 2018 and well into the playoffs, but they’re also space-clearing savants who helped Michel run for 4.45 yards per carry on runs up the middle. Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott, by comparison, averaged 4.41 YPC in the same span.

That sets up the Pats to play some bully ball up the middle, but that’s not all their rushing offense can do. The two young guns are surrounded by heady veterans who have buoyed NFL offenses in the past.

The headliner is White, who responded to the Patriots’ relative lack of wideout depth in 2018 by setting a career high with a team-leading 87 receptions. Burkhead, who scored three touchdowns in the playoffs, is the two-way threat lurking in his shadow.

Fullback James Develin is also available to add an extra mobile blocker up front. Bolden, who will be primarily used in special teams if he makes the final 53-man roster, is a player Belichick has used as a Swiss Army knife in years past. He made the most of his lone year in Miami, scoring three touchdowns on 11 total touches in 2018.

That’s a lot of ground-based power for a team that’s built around the most successful quarterback of all time. Prepping for a push back to a more run-oriented game while the rest of the league spreads its offenses with freewheeling aerial attacks seems counterintuitive, but it makes perfect sense for a club whose ability to cut against the grain has created a dynasty.

And there’s recent evidence to believe it will work. The Patriots’ two most recent Super Bowl wins came after seasons when they ran the ball at least 44 percent of the time.

Patriots run/pass ratios, 2012-present

Year Run % Pass % Super Bowl win?
Year Run % Pass % Super Bowl win?
2018 44.55% 55.45% Y
2017 41.83% 58.17% N
2016 46.04% 53.96% Y
2015 36.48% 63.52% N
2014 41.01% 58.99% Y
2013 41.30% 58.70% N
2012 43.91% 56.09% N

Of course, running won’t be the only concern for an offense that targeted its backs with passes more than 33 percent of the time last season.

New England is still going to wreck defenses with passes out of the backfield, too

Few teams get as much mileage from wheel routes and screen passes as the Patriots do, and that focus only stands to get stronger with Harris joining a crew of check-down threats. White has been the primary beneficiary of that philosophy — as Falcons fans are tragically aware — but Burkhead plays a major role that keeps safeties’ and linebackers’ eyes in the backfield as well. After being targeted 45 times in four years with the Bengals, he’s been Brady’s intended receiver of 56 passes in only 18 regular-season games.

Michel wasn’t much of a boost to that game, but he didn’t have to be with White and Burkhead in the lineup. The same goes for Harris, who was a less effective receiver in college than Michel but did manage a career-high 22 catches at Alabama last fall. Either can contribute, but neither will be forced to thanks to White, who answered questions about New England’s receiving depth by earning more 2018 targets than any other running back but Christian McCaffrey.

The clip above is a perfect example of New England loading its lineup with targets to torch defenders. White scores on the wheel route, but Burkhead, stationed in the slot, also flashes open with a crossing route that would have created a first down (and likely touchdown).

Belichick has been proactive in finding ways to get the ball in the hands of playmakers, whether that’s meant moving his wideouts or tight ends into the backfield for carries, or splitting his tailbacks wide to give opposing secondaries one more headache.

White and Burkhead will now have to fill the linebacker-roasting role Gronkowski left behind, and McDaniels will have to get creative when it comes to deploying his passing game out of the backfield. Without a game-breaking tight end to stretch the field up the seam — or even a league-average one — the Patriots’ backs are going to face more defensive pressure than ever, with White likely to draw tight coverage before he can cross the line of scrimmage.

One thing McDaniels does well to shade his intentions is to run his pass-catching backs, even in bad situations. Burkhead got 19 carries between the AFC title game and Super Bowl, scoring a pair of touchdowns in the process but averaging only 3.4 yards per carry against the Chiefs. That threat did just enough to soften up defenses en route to New England’s sixth Super Bowl victory.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see Michel and Harris, two players who slide decidedly toward “run first” on the backfield spectrum, pick up bigger roles in the team’s passing game this season as Brady and his cohort embark on their first Gronk-less season since 2010.

New England has typically been the home to platoons like Shane Vereen-Stevan Ridley-Jonas Gray or the place where a 32-year-old Steven Jackson can average 2.4 yards per carry in the postseason. Now the Patriots will head into the 2019 season with:

  • a second-year tailback who rushed for 336 yards and six touchdowns in three playoff games
  • the man who holds the record for most catches in a Super Bowl and may be the best pass-catching back in the league
  • a rookie who averaged 6.4 yards per carry at Alabama
  • a Pro Bowl fullback/battering ram who scored four touchdowns on six carries in 2018
  • Burkhead

Pretty good! The Patriots boast one of the deepest and most versatile backfields in the NFL. They’ll need every one of those guys to step up to make the rest of New England forget about Gronkowski and Gordon.

Shifting to a run-first offense in a league so immersed in passing would be a bold departure, but Belichick’s New England tenure has been built on setting trends rather than following them. In Super Bowl 53, he showed the league how to ground a dynamic aerial offense as powerful as the Rams. Now he’s betting other teams will have solved that puzzle as well — and he’s got the Patriots ready to slice them to death via a thousand backfield cuts once opponents think they’ve got the New England passing game figured out.