By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots’ curious lack of Dion Lewis in the offense only grew more peculiar as the start of the season progressed. At the same time, Lewis hadn’t shown in a long time that he’s the same game-changing player he was in 2015. Then, Lewis sprang for 31 yards out of nowhere and showed the explosiveness everyone had been waiting to see on Thursday night in Tampa.
Head coach Bill Belichick was probably also among those patiently awaiting Lewis’ breakout. While his final numbers (seven rushes for 53 yards) were solid if unspectacular, they were part of what was easily the best game of the season so far for the team’s stable of running backs. On a night when Tom Brady took several more hits and both teams were sloppy at times (in the Bucs’ case most of the time), they really needed that efficiency on the ground.
Belichick took notice of the marked improvement from Lewis, as well as the strong performance of early-down back Mike Gillislee and trusted Brady target James White.
“I thought all of our backs gave us production,” said Belichick after the game. “Dion and Mike [Gillislee] ran hard. James [White] had a few carries and had a couple of big catches, a catch on the wheel route down the sideline was a big play. We have confidence in all of those guys and whichever one of them is in the game they’re usually productive for us. I thought he did a good job. I thought all three of them did.”
White’s deep sideline catch in question, which came late in the second quarter and led to the Patriots’ only touchdown of the game, was actually incredible. Brady made a beautiful throw, but White’s hands on the play were arguably even better. Michael Hurley had a detailed explanation of what exactly made his technique so good on that catch.
White may not be as eye-popping or explosive as the likes of LeSean McCoy or Le’Veon Bell in the passing game, but he flashes uncommon skills for running backs. Belichick didn’t hesitate to call it like he sees it, and really how everyone should see it by now: White has become one of the best in the business at his job.
“I think [White]’s probably one of the better backs in the league at all of those things, whether it’s route running, the blitz pickup release part of the game, catching the ball, hiding the catch until late so he doesn’t give the defender an opportunity to put his hands in and strip the ball,” said Belichick. “He’s good at all of those things.”
Also worthy of praise is Gillislee (12 rushes for 52 yards), whose violent downfield style served the Patriots well when they needed it. He didn’t gash the Bucs every single time he touched the ball, but only five of his 12 carries went for under five yards. The Patriots’ 4.91 yards per carry (113 yards on 23 carries) was by far their best rate of the season so far.
The Patriots’ backs figure to only become more important to the offense as the season goes along, especially with the oft-injured Danny Amendola continuing to be leaned on and Rob Gronkowski already getting banged up. Not to mention, the Patriots can’t keep allowing Brady to take so many hits. The quick passing game needs to improve, and White may turn out to be the most reliable option for that.
But there’s no doubt that the group had themselves a night against the Bucs, and Belichick didn’t hide how satisfied he was with them.
Matt Dolloff is a writer/producer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, CBS, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.