FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — While most of the preseason spotlight for the Patriots focused on who was missing at quarterback, there was just as much uncertainty surrounding the running back position.
LeGarrette Blount was re-signed in the offseason after just missing his second career 1,000-yard season because of a late hip injury. In addition Dion Lewis, the team’s primary receiving option out of the backfield, was working his way back from surgery for a torn ACL in his left knee.
James White filled Lewis’ absence admirably at the end of 2015, though he clearly was still learning in just his second year in the league.
But as the Patriots (10-2) prepare to head into what should be their toughest four-game stretch of 2016, they suddenly find themselves with lots of options at a position once clouded with questions. They will be needed as New England closes the regular-season by facing three winning opponents over their final four games.
All three running backs were showcased in New England’s 26-10 over the Rams on Sunday. Blount had the best day, adding to his growing highlight reel with to a juke-filled 43-yard touchdown for the game’s first score. It helped put the Rams in a hole they never really threatened to recover from.
“We always preach that we have to start fast,” Blount said. “If you can do that you know you can get everything else rolling, and you can open up the playbook and call the plays that we play.”
Blount has rushed for 957 yards and 13 touchdowns this season, which is already his most productive year in a Patriots uniform. He’s just 43 yards shy of reaching 1,000, and 51 yards from surpassing the career-best 1,007 he had as a rookie in 2010 with Tampa Bay. If he reaches 15 touchdowns, it also would set a new single-season mark for a Patriots running back.
Lewis made his second start Sunday since returning to the active list on Nov. 13. He continued to look comfortable on his surgically-repaired knee, moving well into cuts after receptions. White was also in the mix, posting his fourth straight game with at least four receptions.
With the newfound depth, the Patriots coaching staff also has shown its willingness to try out some two-back sets featuring the smaller Lewis and White. It appears to be proof that New England feels it has the personnel to keep defenses guessing.
“I think it’s like anything else we do,” Belichick said. “Whatever formations and groupings we run and plays we run, we try to gain an advantage and where we think we can gain advantage we try to take advantage of it.”
That could certainly change game to game, he said, based on the looks that defenses show them. Just having that flexibility, though, should help keep all three backs fresh as the playoffs approach.
It will be even more important as the Patriots make adjustments in the passing game with tight end Rob Gronkowski now on injured reserve following season-ending back surgery. Receiver Danny Amendola became the latest injury victim Sunday when he left the game with an ankle issue. He was seen afterward walking with crutches.
Whatever challenges lie ahead, Blount said he and his teammates would adjust as needed.
“Football does start after Thanksgiving here,” he said. “We have to kick it into gear and we have to do all the things that we need to do and take the necessary steps to make sure that we continue to play good football.”
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