HOUSTON –The Atlanta Falcons high-powered offense has received plenty of attention in advance of Sunday's Super Bowl at NRG Stadium in Houston. One aspect of that top-rated group that has been discussed as much as any is the running backs.
Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman comprise a versatile and dynamic Falcons backfield, but Atlanta's is not the only group capable of changing the game.
The Patriots backfield has been productive in its own right, and it does so with a variety of different styles. LeGarrette Blount opened the season as the lead back and filled the role capably, particularly during the first month when Tom Brady was out and eventually Jimmy Garoppolo was injured, leaving rookie third-stringer Jacoby Brissett at the helm.
Blount carried the ball at least 22 times in each of the first three games and topped the 100-yard mark twice during that time. He eventually saw his role decrease when Brady returned, and later took a secondary role to Dion Lewis when the diminutive back came off PUP following his knee injury.
Lewis and Blount split the carries down the stretch, while James White ably manned the third-down role as the key pass catcher out of the backfield.
The results have been a productive and versatile backfield that has augmented the offense in a number of ways.
"Whoever is ready to step up. We have a great offense, a great group of guys. We have an explosive group so any given day it could be any player," Lewis said.
"We have a great backfield. James White had a great year. LeGarrette Blount had a great year. I am just happy to be in the backfield with those guys and being healthy with those guys. We all bring something different."
The Patriots in general are a tight-knit team but the running back group is perhaps that tightest of all the position groups. It's impossible for one of them to make a play without the rest – including fullback James Develin and special teams ace Brandon Bolden – joining in the fun.
"It is fun. We are a great group of guys," Lewis said. "We are close and we love each other. You go to work and you love the people you want to be around and that is definitely the case with us. We are so close.
"It is whatever you make it. Being here on this team is a close team, it is a family. We want to win and we know that whoever gives us the best chance to win is going to be out there. We know that so we just accept our roles and work together and root hard for other guys too."
"We all have different roles and we all understand our roles and we do it to the best of our abilities. We are really close and we compete and we help each other. There is nothing more you can ask out of a group of guys."
Lewis finished with 283 yards on 64 carries for a solid average of 4.4-yards per attempt. He enjoyed a strong outing in his first game as the lead back, racking up 95 yards on 18 carries (5.3-yard average) in Denver. Lewis was at his best in the playoffs, however, turning in a three-touchdown performance in the Patriots 34-16 victory over the Houston Texans in the divisional round.
He scored touchdowns three different ways, opening the scoring with a 13-yard catch on a screen followed by a 98-yard kickoff return and ending with a tough 2-yard touchdown run.
"The kick return felt the best, it was the longest," Lewis said of his big night against the Texans. "It definitely was a great feeling to run that back. It was a great boost for my teammates so it was an exciting play."
Blount turned in the best season of his seven-year career at the age of 30. He registered career highs in carries with 299, yards with 1,161 and touchdowns with a Patriots single-season record 18. His production has dipped significantly in recent weeks but he still possesses the ability to close out games with his hard-charging style, as evidenced by his 18-yard run down near the goal line against Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game.
The wild card in the group is White, who finished second on the team behind Julian Edelman with 60 receptions out of the backfield. He's delivered numerous big plays for the offense, picking up key third downs and finding the end zone five times as well.
White agreed with Lewis about the tight-knit nature of the group, while also explaining how sharing time in the backfield is something he's used to.
"It's been the case all year. We all know we're not going to be on the field each and every play," White said. "The coaches do a great job of finding a role for each and every one of us each week so we just try to go out there and execute better.
"I've done it my whole life. I've always played with other great backs who've had a lot of success and I think it brings out the best in each other and help one another it's a healthy competition."
White shared time in college at Wisconsin with Melvin Gordon and even back in high school with Cincinnati's Giovani Bernard. So, working alongside Lewis and Blount hasn't been an adjustment.
Fullback James Develin, perhaps the overlooked member of the group, echoed the thoughts of his teammates while also taking time to recognize the contributions of running backs coach Ivan Fears.
"I think it started even before training camp," Develin said of the group's camaraderie. "It was during the offseason and OTAs and stuff like that, even in past years. It just makes for a great working relationship.
"Ives is a great coach. He's a really good leader and a wealth of knowledge out there. He's been doing this for a really long time and anything he can give to us from his experiences through the years is a nice little nugget of knowledge."