FOXBORO, Mass. — Mike Gillislee’s New England Patriots career began with a flourish. He rushed for three touchdowns in a season-opening loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, then added another in a Week 2 win over the New Orleans Saints.
At the time, the 27-year-old looked like New England’s clear No. 1 running back. Now, he can’t seem to get off the bench.
Gillislee has not suited up for the Patriots since Week 8, sitting out four consecutive games as a healthy scratch and another with an illness. After declining several media inquiries during that span, he agreed to take questions from reporters Friday for the first time in weeks.
“I’ve just been trying to find a way, you know?” Gillislee told NESN.com. “It’s tough, but I’m focused, and I’m healthy, and I’ve got faith. I know my work ethic, and I just go at it each and every day and just grind like it’s my last. That’s all I can do.”
Gillislee has averaged just 3.6 yards per carry on 98 attempts this season — a steep drop from the NFL-best 5.7 yards-per-carry average he posted for the Buffalo Bills in 2016 — and has yet to record a run of more than 16 yards. While he struggled to get on track, Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead both emerged as more productive options, pushing Gillislee to the bottom of the depth chart.
It also hasn’t helped that Gillislee doesn’t play on special teams (like Lewis, Burkhead and Brandon Bolden do) and isn’t a threat in the passing game (like Lewis, Burkhead and James White are). On a team that cherishes versatility, his lack thereof has limited his opportunities.
But Gillislee said he remains confident in his abilities. He’s doing “everything” he can to work his way back into the mix.
“All across the board,” said Gillislee, who’s appeared in eight games this season. “Whether that’s just staying after and critiquing myself, whether that’s catching balls or running routes or doing running back drills — whatever it is.”
Gillislee doesn’t yet know whether he’ll be active Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He maintains a strong desire to play but knows “at the end of the day, it’s a business.”
“I’ve been through times like this, and I don’t let it bother me,” Gillislee said. “Because at the end of the day, I’m blessed to be able to play the game that I love. But each and every day, I just start all over, and I just work even harder. It’s nothing but motivation to me.”