How Rex Burkhead’s Seemingly Severe Injury Changes Patriots’ Offense

The Patriots will become more predictable without Rex Burkhead

Bill Belichick wouldn’t come out and reveal the extent of Rex Burkhead’s knee injury Sunday but the reaction from the New England Patriots running back’s teammates spoke volumes.

If Burkhead, who took a hard shot to his knee and had to be carted to the locker room in the third quarter of the Patriots’ 27-20 loss to the Houston Texans, isn’t out for the rest of the 2020 NFL season then he’ll likely be missing in action for a while.

“I talked to him and — so we’ll wait and get medical confirmation,” Belichick said. “But obviously, it’s a knee injury.”

Burkhead was in the midst of his best NFL season before the injury with 67 carries for 274 yards with three rushing touchdowns and 25 catches for 192 yards with three receiving touchdowns.

He served as the Patriots’ versatile change-of-pace back, complementing ball-carrier Damien Harris and pass-catcher James White.

The Patriots have two in-house options to replace Burkhead, though neither player is a 1-for-1 fill-in.

The Patriots activated 2018 first-round pick Sony Michel off of injured reserve Saturday but didn’t dress him for Sunday’s game. Rookie running back J.J. Taylor also was inactive Week 11.

Michel has 26 carries for 173 yards with a touchdown and two catches for 23 yards in three games this season. He could certainly spell Harris as a rushing threat, but he has just 21 career receptions for 167 yards (with five drops) in 32 games.

Taylor has 16 carries for 70 yards and one 4-yard catch in three games but has mostly been a healthy scratch this season. He showed off a complete skill-set in college, training camp and early in the season, but it’s unlikely Burkhead’s injury will lead to more playing time for the undrafted rookie.

What’s more probable is the Patriots will go into Week 12, assuming Burkhead is out, with Harris, Michel and White as their top three running backs.

Harris should continue to handle the majority of rushing attempts, though he did carry the ball just 11 times for 43 yards Sunday. White will still be the Patriots’ third-down back. Michel will probably spell Harris, who could see more opportunities as a pass-catcher moving forward.

But White, who has seen a decrease in touches this season, should see an uptick in snaps without Burkhead.

The biggest issue is the Patriots’ offense will be more predictable unless it can get Harris and Michel involved more in the passing game. Heading into Week 11, the Patriots had run the ball on 71.3 percent of Harris’ offensive snaps. They had passed the ball on 71 percent of White’s offensive snaps. They had a 62/38 pass-run split with Burkhead in the game.

Now, depending on whether Harris, Michel or White is in the backfield, the Patriots will have an obvious offensive tell.

There’s a larger sample size to tell Michel likely won’t be the versatile option to replace Burkhead. Harris has three catches on four targets for 37 yards in seven games this season.

The reason the Patriots activated Michel but didn’t dress him for Sunday’s game was for insurance purposes. It was accurately planning for this exact scenario: a running back going down with an injury. Even though Michel isn’t a perfect replacement for Burkhead, New England is fortunate to have experienced running back depth.

Thumbnail photo via Brian Fluharty/USA TODAY Sports Images

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