By Jason Light and Dan Holmqvist
When Dion Lewis went down clutching his knee during a week nine matchup between the Washington Redskins, Patriots fans breathed an all-too-familiar groan of horror. While this was no means a 2008 Brady caliber ACL injury, it was pretty clear to see the effect that the 5’8” sparkplug had on the New England offense. In this article, we hope to see just how much New England has relied on backs like Lewis for offensive production, analyzing NE halfback statistics over the course of the past 15 years. Using this data, we hope to project out just how much production will be lost via Lewis’ injury, and how potential replacements will fare moving forward.
While a lot of NFL offenses keep one running back on the field for nearly every snap throughout the game – Chicago, Kansas City, and Minnesota all stand as current examples – many teams have adopted a system where a large and bruising back takes care of the rushing duties while a smaller and more agile “scatback” takes responsibility during passing situations. New England, beginning with the inimitable Kevin Faulk, has relied on a cycle of pass-savvy backs throughout the Brady era. To see just how important these backs have been on offense, we’ve compiled statistics for the proportion of team rushing and receiving yards they have been responsible for. Since New England has split third-down duties between multiple backs in certain seasons, we try to analyze certain running-back pairs together within certain timeframes.
Looking at this data, it’s pretty clear that these little fireplugs have a big role. In any given season over the past 15 years, New England scatbacks have accounted for about 10% of total team receiving yards and 20-25% of total team rushing yards. Overall, that amounts to an average of 379 yards rushing and 384 yards receiving per season. While these numbers aren’t exactly eye-popping, any player who could consistently put up 763 yards from scrimmage each year while helping to pass block is a valuable asset in today’s NFL.
So with in comparison to these prior scatbacks, just how good was Dion Lewis before he got injured? In terms of efficiency, he certainly made the most out of every carry he received in his brief Patriots career, netting 4.8 yards per tote over his first seven games. However, it should be noted that passing-down backs are put into third and long situations were yards are much easier to come by on the ground, which could help to inflate their rushing numbers relative to the every-down running back. Looking at the chart above, this certainly seems to be the case, as Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen, and Brandon Bolden have all combined to post 4.8 yards a tote or better at certain seasons during their Patriots tenures.
Where Lewis really seems to excel is the passing game, where his 10.8 yards a reception resembles that of a slot receiver or an elite tight end than a running back. To put that number in comparison, the only Patriots running back to rival that kind of efficiency through the air was Danny Woodhead during his breakout season in 2011, and current number one receiver Julian Edleman has averaged only 10.5 yards per reception over the course of his career. Due to this efficiency, Lewis has been relied on more than any other Patriots third down back of the past 15 years, accounting for 12.8% of total Patriots receiving yards and an impressive 28.0 percent of total rushing yards. Watching the Patriots struggle in third down situations last week, converting only 4/14 in a tightly contested game against the Bills, it is clear that Lewis is already sorely missed.
With Lewis out, who is going to fill this valuable third down role? The likely favorite is the 2014 fourth round rookie out of Wisconsin, James White. Little is known about White as a Pro, as he’s only received 30 total touches in his brief career coming into the Buffalo game. While he did have an impressive career at Wisconsin, putting up 1744 yards from scrimmage in his senior year while averaging 6.5 yards per carry, comparable Wisconsin standouts Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon have not been able to translate college success into the NFL. While White did score twice last week, he received only four total touches during the course of the game, and his rushing touchdown came as a result of a Brady quick-snap upon noticing that the Bills initially had 10 men on the field. If White is not effective in the role, Brandon Bolden has proven to be a solid replacement, putting up 423 yards in a 2013 season which saw Shane Vereen miss 8 games. While only time can tell if either of those backs will be able to fully replace the dynamic Lewis, clearly somebody needs to step up into this valuable role if New England hopes to punch their ticket to San Francisco come February.
The data used for this post can be found here.