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Second Look: Patriots 2 running back sets need to be more productive

Ryan Hannable
September 10, 2018 - 11:33 pm

With not much depth at the wide receiver position, it was evident going into the year the Patriots running backs may be asked to pick up some of the slack.

Given how versatile they are, we figured we’d see a lot of two running back sets to help create mismatches and allow the shifty backs to make plays. Last season, the Patriots had two running back sets on just five percent of their plays, and that jumped to just over 13 percent Sunday against the Texans, but the production wasn’t really there.

Overall, the formation averaged 5.5 yards per play, but Rob Gronkowski’s 28-yard reception at the end of the first half is part of the equation, which throws off the number. Tom Brady’s interception in the first quarter — on a tipped pass — also occurred in this formation. 

It was very ineffective when running the ball, as the Patriots averaged just over a yard rushing. Passing was a little better — averaging just under seven yards per play — but again, Gronkowski’s 28-yard catch had a lot to do with it.

Besides that play, nine yards was the longest play out of the set. Also, the team seemed to go away from it in the second half as only two plays were ran out of this formation.

It’s possible the injury to Jeremy Hill changed things and the two running back sets couldn’t happen given the number of bodies available. It's also worth noting the offense didn't move the ball as well in the second half, and perhaps utilizing the two back sets could have turned things around.

Josh McDaniels did get creative by keeping things unpredictable in this set. It was only James White and Rex Burkhead on the field at the same time, but they lined up all over. Sometimes both were in the backfield, while on others one was out wide and the other in the backfield. There was also some motioning pre-snap where a player in the backfield would then motion out wide, and the other player would motion back into the backfield.

It’s clear the formation is designed to get the ball into a backs hand, whether on the ground or through the air, because on 60 percent of the plays ran with this formation a running back touched the ball. 

The results just could have been better, especially given the talent of Burkhead and White.

Burkhead didn’t look like the same back as we saw for the majority of last year. He missed all of the preseason with a reported knee issue and it showed, as the former Bengal appeared to be fighting to get the rust off all game long. Burkhead finished the game with just one reception on three targets for five yards — very unlike him.

Despite the below average numbers, this set isn’t going away, especially once rookie running back Sony Michel returns to the field as he adds another dynamic. Like Burkhead and White, he can run in between the tackles, or line up as a receiver and be a pass-catcher.

The Patriots running backs certainly have the skills to create matchup problems for a defense in the two-back sets, they just need to execute so it can fully be on display for everyone to see.

Expect a lot of it Sunday in Jacksonville, as Gronkowski may be completely taken out of the game by the Jacksonville defense and there will be a lot more pressure on the Patriots running backs.

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