FOXBORO, Mass. — The opening play of Monday’s New England Patriots-Buffalo Bills matchup featured a sight rarely seen on an NFL field: a player wearing No. 84 lining up as the tailback in an I-formation.
That was Cordarrelle Patterson, the playmaking wide receiver/kick returner who, on this particular night, was filling in as the Patriots’ unlikely starting running back.
Patterson has been involved in dozens of trick plays throughout his NFL career, but this was no gimmick. With Sony Michel sidelined with a knee injury and James White and Kenjon Barner both lacking the skills of a traditional between-the-tackles runner, the 27-year-old wideout led all Patriots ball-carriers with 10 rushing attempts for 38 yards in New England’s 25-6 victory at New Era Field.
That effort included a 22-yard run early in the fourth quarter that helped set up the Patriots’ lone offensive touchdown of the game.
What went into getting Patterson — who had some running back experience but had never carried the ball more than three times in an NFL game — ready for such a drastic role change? According to Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears, not much at all.
“Just hand him the ball,” Fears said Wednesday. “Just hand him the ball. It’s really not a process. Just hand him the ball. If you’ve got guys that make plays, you’ve got to find a way to get them the ball.”
Really? It was that simple?
“What’s the best way to answer this?” Fears asked, rhetorically. “Just hand him the ball. Tell him how we’re going to block it (and say), ‘Hey, go get it.’ ”
Patterson is a big-bodied receiver at 6-foot-2, 228 pounds, and though his running style is far more upright than that of most running backs, the Patriots were confident his prodigious talents as a kick returner would translate into success in the backfield. Patterson returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown two weeks ago in a win over the Chicago Bears.
“The guy’s been running kickoff returns forever,” Fears said. “You know he can see — he’s got awful good vision — and he can run off of what he sees. That’s what you want him to do. Don’t try to make it too complicated. Really, don’t. You give a good athlete the ball and let him make a play for you.”
Fears said Patterson was “very receptive” to the position switch. That much was clear from his postgame media scrum, during which he said he hopes to carry the ball 25 times this week against the Green Bay Packers.
That’s not likely to happen, and Patterson could wind up returning to his usual receiving duties if Michel, who practiced Wednesday, is healthy enough to play or the Patriots sign another running back. He’s staying prepared, though, continuing to work with both Fears and wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea.
“What we’ve done with him because of his role now expanding is that he works closely really with our entire staff right now,” O’Shea said. “Coach Fears will work with him at times, I’ll work with him, of course (offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels) really is heavily involved in working with him. Really, it’s kind of all hands on deck in working with CP. He’s very coachable, and it’s been enjoyable for all the coaches, including myself, to work with him.”