FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots have an embarrassment of riches at wide receiver. And that’s not including their two running backs who can play receiver.
James White and Rex Burkhead both did so extensively during Sunday night’s 33-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium, lining up either out wide or in the slot on 13 and 12 snaps, respectively.
This wasn’t a new development for the Patriots’ offense, which has been splitting backs out for years, but they’ve rarely employed this tactic with such high frequency. White averaged 6.2 snaps per game in a receiver-type alignment last season, according to Pro Football Focus, and Burkhead averaged 2.5 per game.
The benefit of this? Unpredictability. Offensive personnel typically dictates which players the defense sends onto the field. When running backs can operate as wideouts, mismatches are inevitable.
Case in point: When Burkhead lined up wide to the right on a second-and-10 midway through the first quarter, rookie linebacker Devin Bush went with him. Bush has good speed for a ‘backer, but when Burkhead motioned back toward the formation and then took off on a crossing route, he couldn’t keep up.
Seventeen yards. First down, Patriots.
Burkhead was split out on three of his five receptions in the game and lined up on the wing on a fourth. Only two of White’s five catches came from a traditional backfield alignment. The pair combined for 97 receiving yards, plus another 70 on the ground, carrying the load while Sony Michel (15 carries for 14 yards, zero targets) struggled.
“It’s huge,” Burkhead said of his and White’s ability to moonlight as wideouts. “It helps us out as a team. It helps us expand our offense and fill some voids or roles that need to be taken care of. It helps (offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels) out, of course, just game-planning every single week and understanding that he has that versatility to call certain plays.”
The Patriots utilized their “pony” personnel with White and Burkhead on the field together on 18 snaps against the Steelers, including penalties, even deploying them in some unusual ways.
“It?s good to get those guys involved in the game,” quarterback Tom Brady said after the game. “Because with the halfback — and you know you just wait for one halfback every play — those guys don?t play a lot, and they?re such good players for our team, you?ve got to find ways to get them both on the field.
“I think the good thing about those guys is they?re all versatile. They run, they catch and blitz-pickup. So, I think when you?re able to do all three, it puts a lot of stress on the defense. They?re going to play a big role for us all season. We have some depth at that position, and it?s going to be a critical position for us all year.”
This shift to more multi-tailback sets in the first game of the post-Rob Gronkowski era coincided with a stark reduction in tight end usage. Per Nick Underhill of The Athletic, the Patriots ran more plays without a tight end on the field Sunday (25) than they did all last season (24).
Ryan Izzo was the only tight end to see action in the game, as Matt LaCosse dressed but did not play.