What would the New England Patriots’ offense look like without a fullback? We might find out in the coming weeks.
With Jakob Johnson joining James Develin on injured reserve Monday, the Patriots were left with a choice: identify another replacement or shelve the position until next season. If they choose the latter, it would represent a fundamental shift in New England’s offensive strategy.
“It’s certainly been a big part of what we’ve done,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said Monday in a conference call. “James has given us such a high level of play at that position for a long time that it’s really grown into an integral part of our offense in the things we do with him and how we use him. Jak stepped in and was doing a very admirable job in his place. So, if we don’t have one, then it’s the same mentality you take in a game. You lose a guy in a game, and you’re out of that grouping. You have to adjust, and you use what you have left.”
The last time New England operated without a fullback for an extended period was in 2015, when Develin broke his leg in a preseason game and missed the entire regular season. That year, the Patriots occasionally aligned tight ends Michael Williams, Asante Cleveland and Rob Gronkowski in the backfield as lead blockers but spent the overwhelming majority of their offensive snaps in either single-back or empty sets.
They also became an extremely pass-heavy team. The Patriots ran the ball just 383 times in 2015, the fewest of any season during the Bill Belichick era and tied for the seventh-fewest in the NFL that year. Their 1,404 rushing yards ranked 30th, the only time they’ve ranked in the bottom third of the league since 2005.
For comparison’s sake, the Patriots ran the ball 438 times in 2014 and 482 times in 2016, with Develin playing all 16 games in both seasons.
Despite their lack of a ground game, the Patriots still boasted the league’s third-highest-scoring offense in 2015. Buoyed by Tom Brady, an in-his-prime Gronkowski and a receiving corps led by Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Brandon LaFell, New England raced to a 10-0 start before injuries derailed its Super Bowl hopes in December and January. The Patriots dropped four of their final six regular-season games before falling to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game — a game in which Brady (three carries, 13 yards) was the team’s leading rusher.
How will the Patriots adapt this time around? We could see more “pony” (two-running back) sets moving forward, assuming Rex Burkhead is healthy enough to return after missing the last two games with a foot injury. McDaniels also could look to use newly signed tight end Eric Tomlinson — a big-bodied blocking specialist with just 16 catches in 39 career games — as a pseudo-fullback, a role he sometimes filled for the New York Jets in 2017 and 2018.
Tomlinson and veteran Ben Watson were brought aboard — or, in Watson’s case, back aboard — this week to offset the losses of Johnson and tight end Matt LaCosse, who left last week’s game with a knee injury and reportedly is expected to miss significant time. Both should help a rushing attack that has been inconsistent at best this season.
Only the San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens, Seattle Seahawks, Indianapolis Colts and Minnesota Vikings have averaged more rushing attempts per game than the Patriots through six weeks, but New England’s 3.8 yards-per-carry average is tied for 23rd in the league.
“There’s always a way to move the ball, there’s always a way to take care of a football, there’s always a way to try to score points with what you have and in terms of your personnel groupings,” McDaniels said. “So that’s the mentality we have to take, whether it be fullback, tight end, receiver, whatever the position is that we’re a little light in. We have to take that mentality and find the best way to do it. …
“It’s been a very critical part of what we do. We’ll see moving forward how that manifests itself. I’m not sure exactly we know that answer at the moment, but we’re going to work to try to play good football as we move forward and progress and play our best as we head through the season.”
Develin or Johnson theoretically could return this season if healthy, but both are unlikely candidates. The Patriots already have used one of their two IR-return slots on wide receiver N’Keal Harry, who returned to practice Tuesday, and the other likely will be reserved for left tackle Isaiah Wynn, who’s eligible to play in Week 11.