For quite some time now, the New England Patriots have clearly divided responsibilities between multiple running backs. They've typically had one back who operates on early downs and in short yardage, another who works in obvious passing situations and the two-minute drill, and maybe a third who could split the difference between both jobs and make it less obvious what type of play was coming next.
It seems like that's going to change this year. With James White retiring, New England's top two backs are likely to be Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson -- and Bill Belichick sees them both operating in more traditional three-down roles that we're used to seeing running backs, rather than switching off situationally.
Asked how important it is that they each improve their pass-blocking, Belichick -- breaking from form -- gave a long-winded answer on the differences between the old way the Patriots did things and how these current backs will be used, and what that means for their responsibilities:
"Pass protection in the NFL is a hard job. Period. We've been fortunate. We've have some of the best third-down backs that you can possibly have - from Kevin [Faulk], to Shane [Vereen] for three games, to James White. When you look at those guys combined over that period of time, there were very, very few mistakes on anything. Assignments. Execution. Decisions. All of which they have a lot of. Those players primarily played on third down.
When you play players on every down, then you're looking at a different type of player, and a different set of responsibilities. Some of those are advantages for us. Some of them may not be advantages. Those guys have all improved. But it's a lot. They're looking at all three downs, not really just third down. And so we have to plan accordingly on that.
At running back, there is always work to do. There's always things to improve in - pass protection is high on the list. So is route-running. And of course reading the blocks and understanding the tempo, and the guys are blocking in front of you - the double teams of these two guys, and things like that. Just like safeties do - safeties rely a lot on what happens in the front-7 and where they go, where they fit, how quickly they do it, and so forth. It's not just what they do. It's how they integrate into what happens in front of them. That comes with a lot of experience, and teamwork. and reps.
So I'd say that's where we're at at that position. Again, very similar to the safety position on defense."
The comparison between running back and safety is an interesting one in terms of responsibilities, but the meat of the answer that most people will be interested in is where he refers to his young running backs as three-down players. That means we could be looking at expanded pass-catching roles for both Harris and Stevenson, and less rotating in and out for both players depending on situation, rather than by drive or whichever of them happens to have the hot hand.
It'll be interesting to see the Pats operate with their backs in this way, even if only because it's been so long since they did so.