It’s not difficult to guess what type of play the New England Patriots’ offense is going to run on any given play. One simply must look in their backfield.
If James White is on the field, the Patriots probably are going to pass the ball. White has played 453 snaps so far this season; 358 of those have been passing plays. The Patriots pass the ball on 79 percent of snaps White is on the field.
Conversely, if Sony Michel is in the backfield, the Patriots probably are going to run the ball. The rookie has played 187 offensive snaps this season; 137 of those have come on running plays. The Patriots run the ball on 73.3 percent of snaps Michel is on the field.
Why the drastic splits? White isn’t much of a between-the-tackles runner, while the Patriots don’t yet appear to fully trust Michel as a pass-catcher and a blocker. The Patriots have benefitted from catching teams off guard with dropping back to pass while Michel is on the field, however. They average 7.11 yards per pass without Michel and 9.02 yards per pass with him.
For those curious, Michel and White have shared the field just twice all season. Both plays were passes; one went for 12 yards while the other lost a yard.
So, how do the Patriots fix this issue? The solution is coming this week. The Patriots activated running back Rex Burkhead to their 53-man roster Monday. The veteran running back is adept as a runner and a receiver.
Burkhead played 59 snaps before hitting injured reserve this season. The Patriots passed on 33 of them (55.9 percent) and ran on 26 plays (44.1 percent).
Going back to last season, Burkhead played 195 snaps in 2017. The Patriots passed on 64.1 percent of those plays and ran on 35.9 percent.
While White has been better than usual as a runner this season, he’s best utilized on draws. Burkhead presents a much bigger threat on early downs. He even served as the Patriots’ short-yardage back at times last season.
“He’s a versatile player that can be involved in all three — actually all four downs — at a high level of execution in the running game, the passing game and the kicking game,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said Tuesday. “We’ll take as many of those guys as we can get.”
It’s unlikely Burkhead will fill a full-time role with the Patriots. White will continue to be the team’s third-down option, while Michel will continue to receive the bulk of early-down work. White and Michel both have been good enough this season to maintain their roles, but Burkhead could cut into both players’ snaps. And if the Patriots are trying to make the opposition guess, then Burkhead is their guy as long as he stays healthy. Of 30 potential games Burkhead could have played in a Patriots uniform, he’s only suited up in 15 through two seasons as he’s dealt with rib, knee, neck and concussion issues.
Before last season, Belichick was excited by the versatility of his running back corps. The Patriots had Burkhead and Dion Lewis, both of whom could play on all three downs.
“Hopefully with our backs this year, we?ll have a little more balance and be a little less predictable from that spot,” Belichick said last summer.
The Patriots have gone backward in that regard this season, but that could start to change with the midseason addition of Burkhead.
The Patriots’ offense certainly looked better Sunday after their Week 11 bye than they did in their loss to the Tennessee Titans. Burkhead puts them at full strength, and the sky suddenly is the limit for a unit that features Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon, Rob Gronkowski, Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson, Phillip Dorsett, Michel, White and Burkhead.