Running backs have huge responsibilities when the Patriots pass

"I didn’t know what pass-blocking was until I got here."

James White
James White participates in a practice drill. –Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Do your job.

It’s a mantra recited with mind-numbing frequency in the Patriots’ locker room, and one that requires some unpacking.

Take the running back position. As the title suggests, a back’s primary job is to run when handed the ball. Yet the label “running back’’ fails to capture each responsibility required, and one in particular that New England stresses early and often.

Running back Brandon Bolden, who was cut Saturday, explained.

“I didn’t know what pass-blocking was until I got here,’’ he said with a coy smile. “In college, they used to just point at a guy and say, ‘Get him.’ ’’


It may not be glorious, but maintaining competency in pass-blocking situations is a characteristic every successful Patriots running back has held. Fantasy points aren’t awarded for a vicious pancake block, but it’s certain to get noticed in the Foxborough film room.

Much goes into the presnap thought process of a back on a passing play. They have to identify what scheme the defense is showing and which pass rushers will be picked up by the offensive line, all with the awareness that an audible could drastically shift their role at a moment’s notice.

Above all, communication is paramount.

“There’s just a lot of communicating,’’ said running back James White. “You may know what to do before you get to the line, but then when you get to the line there might be a lot of different calls based on what the defense is showing you. You’ve got to be prepared for anything.’’

White is considered one of the league’s best third-down backs, partly for his pass-blocking prowess. Though he’s only 5 feet 10 inches and barely exceeds 200 pounds, White is a dual threat, able to get in front of an oncoming linebacker and halt his progress, then come off the block and act as a receiver.


Should a running back be stationed on his quarterback’s blind side, that only adds to the importance of sturdy blocking.

Many think ball security is an aspect confined solely to running with the ball. However that, too, is one of many thoughts rattling around a back’s cranium.

“People will assume ball security is just holding onto the ball,’’ said new running back Jeremy Hill. “But also it’s if a blitzer is coming behind the quarterback, and it’s your guy and you let him free and he [gets] a strip sack, that’s on you. You have to do it all and that’s something I’ve been priding myself on.’’

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Hill came to New England from Cincinnati after ailments and a sharp decline in carries derailed his 2017 season. Flaunting sound pass-blocking technique is a surefire way to get noticed by the Patriots’ coaching staff. Hill made his presence felt in New England’s first preseason game by laying a ferocious block that brought Washington linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton to the ground.

New England running backs coach Ivan Fears is pleased with what he’s seen from his backs turned blockers. It’s an area that can be difficult to assess during training camp, when players can’t touch the quarterback, but one that is dissected in the film room following each preseason contest.

“I’m kind of proud with the way all the guys have been pass-blocking,’’ said Fears. “That’s not an easy thing for a back to do, let’s be honest. They’re matched up against guys usually a hell of a lot bigger, a lot stronger than they are. The guys have been getting after it, so I’m kind of happy with where they are, no doubt about it.’’


Newcomers to One Patriot Place have plenty of options should they seek advice and tips to further their pass-blocking skills. White, in particular, serves as a beacon of wisdom.

“Obviously, I take little things from his game as far as the reads and who we have and who we don’t have,’’ said Hill. “He does a great job helping me with that and all the other running backs, too.’’

White has developed his encyclopedic knowledge through countless repetitions in practice and a lot of film study.

“Just trying to watch film, know what the defense is going to give you, know your opponent, and just reacting fast and trusting what you see,’’ offered White. “All those practice repetitions over and over again, you keep getting better at it and go out and be on the same page as everybody on the offense.’’

No moment more aptly encapsulated the role of pass blocking in the Patriots’ offense than during coach Bill Belichick’s news conference Monday. A reporter asked Belichick if he thought pass-catching running backs were interchangeable with receivers in the context of New England’s offense.

“First of all,’’ began Belichick, “the biggest thing is pass protection.’’


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