The New England Patriots three-headed monster in the backfield will make Tom Brady and Co. even more difficult for the Minnesota Vikings to stop through play-action.
There are plenty of familiar names one will stumble across when preparing for the New England Patriots. Quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski are both heading to Canton when their careers are over and wide receiver Julian Edelman has been a staple of this offense for a majority of the past decade.
Although the cliché is that Father Time catches up with everyone, it bears some truth. As this trio of weapons has gotten older, the Patriots have had to slightly adapt to get more out of their offense and nobody adapts better than New England head coach Bill Belichick.
Over the past three seasons, the Patriots have been toward the top of the league in terms of rushing attempts including ranking seventh with 313 carries this season. This has happened in part to Brady chugging along through his age-41 season, but has also coincided with an impressive stable of backs that have made stopping the Patriots difficult.
Leading the way for the Patriots 12th-ranked rushing attack is rookie Sony Michel. In previous years, the Patriots have been notoriously stingy on investing money or draft capital into running backs, but took Michel with the 31st pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
The Georgia product has battled injuries throughout his rookie campaign, but has given the Patriots a grinder between the tackles. Michel has posted 586 yards and five touchdowns, numbers that lead the Patriots in both categories despite being limited to eight games. He also chipped in with 131 of the Patriots 215 rushing yards in last Sunday’s 27-13 win over the New York Jets.
"“He’s a good back,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said of Michel when asked about him at his Wednesday presser. “They do a good job of blocking the point of attack, allowing him to get into the secondary and I think the receivers do a nice job of trying to block the safeties if you’re in single-high defense. I think they just do a good job creating for him, but there’s been a lot of time where he’s come out the back door and been able to accelerate and make some long runs.”"
If Michel can’t get it done, the Patriots have no problem getting their other running backs involved through the air. James White had a breakout performance with three touchdowns in Super Bowl LI and after an average year in 2017, has exploded onto the scene in 2018 thanks to his receiving ability.
White has amassed 67 receptions for 567 yards and six touchdowns on a whopping 94 targets this season with another 303 yards and four touchdowns coming on the ground. This has made White one of the most reliable targets in the Patriots’ passing attack.
What’s scary is this group got even deeper this week with the activation of Rex Burkhead off injured reserve. Although Burkhead has played in just three games this season due to a neck injury, he might be the most complete back on the roster. Last year, Burkhead had a modest season with 518 yards from scrimmage and eight total touchdowns, but that versatility creates a wrinkle that defenses have to account for.
With so much talent in the Patriots backfield, it creates huge opportunities for Brady to attack defenses using play-action. On this play, Brady hits Chris Hogan on a wide-open, 20-yard gain when the Jets over-commit to stopping the run on the far side. Plays like this that have Zimmer taking notice.
"“They are the best play action team in the NFL in my opinion,” Zimmer said. “They do a great job of getting linebackers and safeties to suck up on the play action, on the runs and then finding the open spots behind them, which makes it really difficult. The runs look exactly like the play actions, which is what a good play action team does.”"
For good reason, the play-action pass is a key staple to the Patriots offense. The Patriots rank third in the NFL (behind Kansas City and Los Angeles) by averaging 9.7 yards per play-action play and have the second largest difference when running any other play at a 6.4 yards per play clip. (Numbers according to Football Outsiders)
Those numbers give the New England backfield plenty of life outside of the traditional running game. If the Vikings want to escape Foxboro with a victory, they’ll have to figure out a way to stop both.