FOXBORO, Mass. — Rostering two talented pass-catching running backs hasn’t just helped the New England Patriots’ offense excel this season. It’s done wonders for their defense, as well.
Attempting to cover James White and Rex Burkhead in practice on a daily basis is the best possible preparation for a matchup like the one New England will face this Sunday against New York Jets star Le’Veon Bell, who leads all NFL backs in receptions with 16 through two weeks.
“We see it every day in practice,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday. “We see James White and Rex Burkhead out there — it’s the same thing. You have five receivers out there. Those are hard matchups for players who aren’t good, experienced coverage players playing at all of the positions because those guys could line up anywhere.
“It’s the same thing with Bell or (Miami’s Kenyan) Drake or (New York’s Ty) Montgomery — other guys like that. They could be outside in a corner-type alignment or they could be somewhere inside in more of a linebacker or safety-type of coverage area, traditionally.”
Fourteen of Bell’s 16 catches this season have come from a traditional backfield alignment, but his route-running prowess makes him a threat both in the slot and split out wide, as well.
In New York’s Week 1 loss to the Buffalo Bills, Bell lined up outside wide receiver Robby Anderson and beat linebacker Matt Milano for a 9-yard touchdown.
During his final active season with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017, Bell caught one touchdown pass on a wheel route from the slot, outpacing Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Telvin Smith down the sideline. He caught another on a post, splitting out and beating Baltimore Ravens safety Tony Jefferson.
Many defenses aren’t accustomed to dealing with running backs who can function equally well as wide receivers. The Patriots have practiced against two for months.
“I would say all the way back to April, we’ve been getting reps against those guys,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. “When we do 1-on-1s, the ‘backers will go against them, the safeties will go against them, the corners. We all try to get that, because honestly, we’re not going to play anybody that’s going to be better route-runners than James and Rex.
“There’s going to be guys as good, like Le’Veon, but going against those guys — you guys see it. They run all different types of routes. We send them deep. Rex caught a deep ball at the end of the game last week. It’s tough. So I think each rep, you can actually see us getting better as we’re getting reps against those guys. And I think it gives you a lot of confidence when you go out there and play on Sunday.”
Of the 15 combined passes White and Burkhead have caught this season, eight have come on plays in which they lined up outside of the backfield, including the 32-yard heave Burkhead hauled in during Sunday’s 43-0 throttling of the Miami Dolphins.
The Jets have another potential pass-catching threat in Montgomery — a converted receiver who still wears No. 88 — but he’s seen just three targets through two games.
The main attraction is Bell, though. In addition to being one of the NFL’s top ball-carriers, he has caught 51 more passes than any other running back since entering the league in 2013 despite voluntarily sitting out all of last season. His 43.0 receiving yards-per-game average over that span ranks third behind Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey.
“It’s definitely a problem,” Belichick said. “But we’ve seen that every day in practice, so that’s one of the good things about our offense. No backs are any more of a problem than these two guys (White and Burkhead) are for us to cover. We’ve seen plenty of it. It still is a problem, but it’s not like we don’t see it every day in practice.”