A trend as old as the Patriots’ dynasty itself. Smaller, quicker backs, relative unknowns among casual football fans, acting as productive, versatile receiving backs on championship New England teams. Kevin Faulk set the mold in the Patriots’ first run of championships. But perhaps no single back has taken that mantle more effectively than James White.
Running backs as top receivers is not a rarity in today’s NFL. Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley and Alvin Kamara all rank among their team’s leading receivers. However, those three are also the featured ball carriers on their team. White is the unique back who is as effective a receiver as the elite backs in the league, without figuring nearly as much into the running game.
Even in today’s NFL, that type of back–one who is a de facto receiver in the body of a running back–remains uncommon. And in that role, White has turned into one of the most important cogs of the Patriots’ offense
White’s numbers as a receiver speak for themselves; his 87 catches was third among running backs this season and 16th overall. Only McCaffrey and Barkley had more yards after the catch among backs, and only McCaffrey recorded more total receiving yards.
So what elements make White so lethal out of the backfield? For starters, it is his elusiveness. On a team of solid weapons, White clearly is the most dangerous in the open field. He excels out in the flat and on flare routes, especially against soft zone coverages. This allows him to get in one-on-one tackle situations, which he wins more often than not. Take a look at the clip below. It is a simple checkdown flare, but with two quick missed tackles, White turns a three-yard gain into an eight-yard gain.
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New England gets White in all manner of circumstance where he can use is elusiveness to its full effect. Slip screens out of the backfield, rocket screens when split out wide, shovel passes, all of them feature heavily into White’s usage. But the simplest summary of his value is that he is the exploiter of defenses. Against soft zone, he gets in the open flats and racks up yards after the catch. In man matchups with linebackers, he attacks the middle of the field or the edges by exploiting his quickness advantage. Even if the defense mans him up with a safety, White more often than not finds the advantage.
As such, Brady does not see White as a mere checkdown. He is, like Barkley, Kamara and McCaffrey, often option one. The clip below from the first game against Kansas City has become a New England staple with White. They get the matchup with White on a linebacker, run a quick inside rub and Brady goes catch-and-release with the ball. Now White is in wide open space and uncontested for about 15 yards.
Essentially, White is easy yards in the passing game. Nothing he does is overly flashy or prolific. He is not the Patriots best threat in the run game, or even the second-best. But he is a guy who can pick up chunk yardage time and time again, can be trusted with 15 targets in big games and opens up the middle of the field by drawing defenders to the flat.
Outside of Aqib Talib, the Rams are not exactly a man-on-man juggernaut defensively. White should have a considerable amount of space underneath to maneuver, particularly on Marcus Peters‘ side. Two years ago, White threatened Brady’s Super Bowl MVP stranglehold with 14 catches and three total touchdowns. He is no stranger to big games, and he has consistently delivered. Expect a lot of looks out of the backfield once again on Super Bowl Sunday.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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