The list of positive takeaways from the New England Patriots’ Week 9 loss to the Baltimore Ravens is short.
Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu took a huge step forward in his acclimation, the Patriots defended the pass well and running back James White had a strong performance as a ball-carrier. That last one was particularly interesting. White is known more for his pass-catching abilities despite his job title.
Last year was the first time in five NFL seasons White finished with more carries than catches. Through eight games this season, White has 44 catches to 32 carries. And nine of those carries came Sunday night against the Ravens when White hauled in just two passes.
White has nine or more carries in just five career games. Three of those contests came last season.
And White earned those nine carries Sunday night, gaining 4.2 yards per carry with a touchdown. The Patriots have struggled to run the ball this season, but they found some success handing the ball off to White in Baltimore. Only one of White’s carries — a 5-yarder — came in garbage time when the game was out of hand.
Defenses don’t expect the Patriots to run when White is on the field, and that certainly helps the sixth-year veteran gain yards on the ground. The Patriots also must adjust their rushing attack now that fullback James Develin and his backup Jakob Johnson are on injured reserve.
The Patriots’ power running game simply might not return this season even when starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn comes off of injured reserve and replaces Marshall Newhouse. The Patriots’ options at fullback are tight ends Ben Watson, Ryan Izzo and Matt LaCosse, linebacker Elandon Roberts, offensive lineman James Ferentz and running back Brandon Bolden. It’s not reasonable to expect a combination of those players to line up at fullback even a fraction as much as Develin was on the field earlier this season or in years past.
Patriots starting running back Sony Michel benefits from a fullback. And without Develin this season, Michel just might not regain the same success he had last year.
So, the Patriots must adjust. And they adjusted Sunday night by staying in 11 personnel, going no-huddle and using White as their bell-cow back.
And while the Patriots did lose, they also ran the ball better. White, who has been better than Michel at making defenders miss this season, found success on zone runs.
White has a forced missed tackle rate of 15.6 percent on carries this season. He’s forced five missed tackles on 32 attempts. Michel has a forced missed tackle rate of 9.7 percent. He’s forced 14 missed tackles on 144 rushing attempts. If the run blocking isn’t going to be there — and it hasn’t this season — then a running back has to be able to run over defenders or shift past them. Neither White nor Michel has shown the ability to truck a defender. And White is the shiftier back.
The Patriots do need to worry about managing White’s workload. At 5-foot-10, 205 pounds, White certainly is not the biggest back. And he’s going to take more punishment on the ground than he would catching the ball. White is on pace for 142 touches and 60 carries this season. He had 181 touches and 94 carries in 2018. So, the Patriots certainly could afford to increase his workload over their final seven games.
It would be shocking if White turned into a 15-carry per game player at this point in his career. And he alone will not fix the Patriots’ struggles in the ground game. But he showed Sunday that he could at least help. Fantasy owners of Michel will be shaking their heads in disgust, but the Patriots would benefit by more of a running back by committee approach than they would in overworking Michel when something there clearly is not working.
White was barely a part of the ground game through the first eight weeks of the season, when he was averaging just 3.3 carries per game. If he can keep moving the ball like he did Sunday night, that number should increase.