DENVER (USA TODAY Sports) – It was a classic Bill Belichick move.
Ninety minutes before kickoff of Sunday night’s game against the Broncos, the Patriots coach included his team’s leading rusher on the inactive list. Mike Gillislee, the team’s primary short-yardage tailback, who this offseason signed a two-year, $6.4 million contract, was a healthy scratch.
The Patriots hardly missed him. The team’s four other running backs combined for 99 rushing yards and 38 more receiving yards. Most important, each of the top three backs – Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead and James White – scored a touchdown in a 41-16 rout.
If seems be maddening for fantasy football players to figure out which of Belichick’s running backs will be a feature backs, imagine what opposing defensive coordinators must feel.
“We just have a lot of different guys that can do a lot of different things. It depends on the matchup and the defense, and what the coaches are going to do,” White told USA TODAY Sports. “We know we're not all going to be out there every single play.”
Indeed, the trio of Lewis, Burkhead and White were a better matchup against the Broncos, with a Patriots game plan that was clearly based upon getting those smaller, faster runners matched up against Denver’s linebackers on pass routes.
And it would surprise no one if Belichick shook up the running back depth chart and active list again next week for Sunday’s game in Mexico City against the Raiders.
“Sometimes I can play one play, Rex will play 30, Dion will play 15, it'll be all spread out,” White said. “You never know how it's going to go. So whenever we step out there on the field, we have to make the most of the opportunities that we get.”
But should Gillislee — who leads the Patriots in rushing attempts (98), yards (355) and rushing touchdowns (four) — once again spend the game watching from the sidelines in a sweat suit, it likely will be because of Burkhead, whose versatility as a runner, receiver and special teams player clearly intrigues Belichick. Gillislee, meanwhile, does not play special teams for the Patriots, nor does he have an extensive role in the passing game.
“It’s great to have players that can do multiple things, players that can play on all three downs, whether it be offense or defense, and players that can play on fourth down in the kicking game who still have an offensive or defensive role. It makes you a stronger team and it makes you a better team,” Belichick said.
He wasn’t speaking about Burkhead in particular, but he could have been.
On Sunday in Denver, Burkhead scored the Patriots’ first touchdown on a 14-yard reception on a crossing route in which he easily separated himself from Denver safety Darian Stewart.In the second quarter, he burst through a row of Broncos to block a punt. His 36 snaps (out of 70) were a season high.
“Whatever phase it is and whatever way the coaches want me to contribute, I’m always going to give it my best,” Burkhead said.
Follow Lindsay H. Jones on Twitter @bylindsayhjones.