FOXBORO, Mass. — Though it’s easy to stereotype James White and Dion Lewis as similar players because they’re both undersized running backs, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick sees them differently.
That’s why Lewis didn’t overtake all of White’s snaps when the running back returned from multiple offseason knee surgeries. White is the next in line after Kevin Faulk and Shane Vereen as the Patriots’ sub-back, while Belichick compared Lewis to Danny Woodhead because of his ability to run the ball.
Both roles are important in the Patriots’ offense. White is asked to pass block and run routes as a receiver more frequently, while Lewis brings more unpredictability to the offense because of his versatility as a runner and pass-catcher.
White, who Belichick mentions in the same sentence as Faulk, Vereen, Tony Galbreath, Eric Metcalf and David Meggett, is on pace for one of the most productive seasons as a sub-back pass-catcher under Belichick. With 50 catches, 474 yards and four touchdowns, White is on pace for 62 catches, 583 yards and five scores.
Here are the top seasons by those players as pass-catchers under Belichick or with the Patriots head coach on staff:
Galbreath, 1984, New York Giants: 37 catches, 357 yards, zero touchdowns
Meggett, 1989, Giants: 34 catches, 531 yards, four touchdowns
Metcalf, 1992, Cleveland Browns: 47 catches, 614 yards, five touchdowns
Metcalf, 1993, Browns: 63 catches, 539 yards, two touchdowns
Faulk, 2008, Patriots: 58 catches, 486 yards, three touchdowns
Vereen, 2014, Patriots: 52 catches, 447 yards, three touchdowns
White essentially served as the Patriots’ fourth wide receiver Monday night in New England’s 30-23 win over the Baltimore Ravens and caught three passes for 81 yards, including a 61-yard catch-and-run off a slant route while lined up as a receiver.
“I think it’s acquired skill for most backs, not a lot of guys that have done that,” Belichick said Wednesday. “You might see a bit more of it in college now because there’s probably more empty formations, but even still the routes they run in college, the two routes that they run really isn’t enough to attack an NFL defense. You need a little more than that.
“The guys we’ve had out there from Tony Galbreath to Meggett to Metcalf in Cleveland to Faulk to Vereen to White. I don’t think that’s something they came in with. It’s something they learned and acquired and got good at.”
Lewis and Woodhead also are adept at catching passes out of the backfield. Lewis caught 36 passes for 388 yards with two touchdowns in seven games last season, while Woodhead caught 40 passes for 446 yards with three touchdowns in 2012, but they typically, with exceptions, run the ball more than pure sub-backs.
“Those guys are pretty good at running the ball, so I’m not saying (Lewis) couldn’t (play sub-back). It’s just a different type of player,” Belichick said.
“It’s just a little bit different usage of the player. I’m not saying those guys can’t carry the ball, I’m not saying those other guys can’t catch the ball. It’s just a little different.”
One of White’s biggest responsibilities as a sub-back is to protect quarterback Tom Brady. Belichick described the most difficult aspect of that role.
“Probably the hardest thing they have to figure out is whether a guy is blitzing or not,” Belichick said. “When he comes across, he’s trying to come across like he’s blitzing so you’ll stay in and take him, but if he really has you in coverage and he’s just coming across to hold you in, and you get out, then you’re out, you don’t have to block him and he has to cover you. That’s a real cat-and-mouse game between the back who has pickup and the linebacker who’s in man coverage who’s trying to keep him in by using a blitz technique.
“If either guy is wrong on that, it’s like playing chicken. If either guy is wrong on that, you’re out, the other guy blitzes and you’re sacked. Or you blitz, he knows you’re not coming and he’s out and then you can’t cover him and it’s a big play in man-to-man coverage.”
Lewis gave up a sack Monday night, while White did a solid job protecting Brady.
Thumbnail photo via Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports Images