All offseason, New England Patriot fans and fantasy prognosticators alike wondered what the team was going to do at running back. In the offseason, they got rid of LeGarrette Blount and signed Rex Burkhead and Mike Gilislee. They already had Super Bowl hero James White and oft-injured, but always efficient Dion Lewis in the mix. Now, they had four backs. How the heck is that going to shake out?
It took some real shaking, but since the Patriots bye in Week Nine, it feels as though the team finally knows what they are doing in the backfield.
Mike Gilislee is out of the picture. James White is in the mix, but is almost always a pass catcher. From there, they split a bulk of the carries between Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead. Burkhead was injured at the beginning of the season but is a player that has come along over the past month. He presents a schematical advantage against the Steelers, and is going to be a player the Patriots use to attack them on Sunday.
To understand how the Patriots are going to use Burkhead, you have to understand the skill set. He is versatile. You have to respect Burkhead overall more than a player like White because he can consistently run between the tackles. On the play below, his footwork, and a slight shimmy behind the line of scrimmage draws Preston Brown, 52, too far to the left. Bulkhead also gets Michah Hyde, 23 rolling to the left as well. Burkhead plants, cuts up field and gets into the second level for what becomes a 16-yard touchdown in the right corner. Sean Spence fell for a similar move on Sunday.
Burkhead also has become the goal line back. He has nine carries inside the ten-yard line since Week 10 and has four touchdowns in that situation.
What makes this an issue for defenses is that most would classify him as a receiving back, like White. Burkhead is a major threat out of the backfield and one that the Steelers do not necessarily have the personnel to defend.
Burkhead can make plays after the catch.
But what is even scarier than that is that he can run routes like a wide receiver, get open out wide and create yards after the catch over the middle of the field.
How the Patriots will use Burkhead attack the Steelers
The loss of Ryan Shazier has a good chance of being exposed by Rex Burkhead. Shazier is likely the player who would have watched a lot of the moving parts that the running game brings.
The fact that White and Burkhead can both make plays in the passing game makes scheming for them a nightmare. Below, you can see they have two running backs on the field, one just so happens to be out wide.
The idea that you can motion, run reverses, and run or throw off of the illusion of the extra running back is something you do not see most teams do. You have to treat Burkhead as if he is an extra tight end in terms of personnel because they can run between the tackles. Still, did you see that route he ran? He is not a tight end.
Below, the Patriots use both backs to keep the Dolphins in a heavy personnel, but in a spread formation. In one aspect, it forces a player like Kiko Alonso to work out wide in a situation he is not used to. Can you imagine Vince Williams, Sean Spence, or Arthur Moats out wide in this matchup? They will get dismantled.
The other aspect is the respect in the middle of the field. They are clearing out the linebackers. The Dolphins safeties now have to choose between playing underneath, and being exposed to the big play, or letting the short stuff go, being sure to make tackles quick after the catch. Given that the linebackers are in situations where they may get beat off of the ball, you likely want to creep the safeties up and pray you do not get torched for it.
This is the attention that two running backs with legitimate pass catching ability bring. Rob Gronkowski is bracketed, but has room to run as the linebackers are forced to step up and pay respect to Burkhead and White.
The Patriots can run play action, which gives a linebacker, whose instincts are to stop the run no idea what to do out wide on a different running back.
They can also run sweeps and end arounds to Burkhead to get the three linebackers, much less athletic than Ryan Shazier, having to move sideline to sideline and through traffic to stop the quick back.
The Steelers were already going to have to put a lot of their safety and linebacker artillery into trying to stop Rob Gronkowski. Now, they have to donate the rest to try to solve the shuffling of running backs like a fantasy football owner on a championship Sunday.
The Patriots are likely going to test the athleticism, the ability to roam sideline to sideline and the ability to cover Rex Burkhead in one-on-one situations. Schematically, it is a nightmare for this team in this moment. We will see how they react.