The New England Patriots have had some of the toughest injury luck in the NFL.
While they have suffered injuries to notable players like Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski (who returned in Week 14), the Patriots have been crushed at running back.
They first lost Dion Lewis to a torn ACL in Week 9. Lewis was a breakout running back who was also one of Brady’s key receivers. In just seven games, Lewis had over 600 combined rushing and receiving yards with four touchdowns.
With Lewis out, LeGarrette Blount become the primary back in New England. While Blount doesn’t have the versatility of Lewis, he has a pounding style of running and had bulldozed his way to over 700 yards and six touchdowns on the season.
Blount suffered a hip injury in Week 14 that’s expected to keep him out the rest of the season. The Patriots moved Blount to the Injury Reserve list on Wednesday, essentially signalling that his season is done.
This leaves the Patriots without their two starting running backs just four weeks before the playoffs. And while the Patriots are better than perhaps any other team at turning end-of-the-bench players into quality starters, their depth at running back isn’t encouraging.
Brandon Bolden and James White are next up on the depth chart, and while both have had their moments, they’re not Blount or Lewis. Bolden has totaled over 200 yards in rushing and receiving, but much of that is inflated by a Week 12 performance in which he had 84 receiving yards on four catches. He’s only topped 50 rushing yards once this season (in Week 14), but he did so on 16 carries, making for a 3.2 yards per carry average. For the season, he’s averaging just 3.1 yards per carry.
White, meanwhile, had one monster game against the Eagles, catching ten passes for for 115 yards and a touchdown. Otherwise, he’s averaging a meagerly 2.6 yards per carry, and hasn’t topped three carries or four catches through the season besides for the Eagles game.
This has left the Patriots searching for help. On Wednesday, they signed Montee Ball to their practice squad. Ball was a second-round pick in 2013, and though he had a decent rookie year with the Broncos, he lasted just 21 games in Denver, before getting cut and going unclaimed throughout this season, despite multiple tryouts. According to Around the NFL’s Conor Orr, the Patriots also may look at Trent Richardson, a young, highly touted running back, who after an impressive rookie year, fell out of the NFL.
In a further show of desperation, the Patriots were also rumoured to be considering signing 32-year-old Steven Jackson after they worked him out. Jackson was a top running back in the NFL during his prime with the Rams, and he had a decent two-year stint in Atlanta, but hasn’t played yet this season. Though Jackson’s 700-yard, six-touchdown season in 2014 is impressive on paper, he only averaged 3.7 yards per carry, and given his age and high mileage, he likely would struggle to rekindle some of that magic on such short notice.
If any team deserves the benefit of the doubt, however, it’s the Patriots. The Patriots are renowned for getting production from unexpected sources. The Patriots’ offensive line ranks as the best in getting running backs more yards, according to Football Outsiders, so perhaps any runner can pick up extra yards if the blocking is good enough.
Additionally, the Patriots can survive as a pass-heavy team. Tom Brady is still at the helm, and with Gronkowski and Danny Amendola healthy and Edelman on the mend, the Patriots can continue as a dynamic passing offence, even if the run game is lacking. That puts extra pressure on Brady and his receivers, but if the passing game is efficient, it also opens up lanes for running backs.
Nonetheless, the Patriots have to be worried about the state of their running backs so close to the playoffs. The Patriots seem on track to secure a first-round bye, but for a team that looked like the clear favourites in the NFL, the Super Bowl race is suddenly a little more up in the air because of some unfortunate injuries.
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