Historically, the Patriots have rotated running backs in three buckets under head coach Bill Belichick in recent years.
Although there are rare exceptions, particularly one last season, New England has three roles for the guys in the backfield: early-down back, sub-package back, and receiving back.
Starting with the latter two, sub-package backs could carry the ball or run routes, but they'll do so out of lighter personnel groupings against light defenses, typically in spread formations. As for receiving backs, those in the James White mold play almost exclusively in the passing game as receiving threats out of the backfield.
Then, there are the early-down ball carriers who tout the rock on first and second down out of heavier run-game personnel, such as two-back or two tight-end groupings. These backs play the majority of their snaps in the running game. But by using heavy personnel, formations, and mimicking run-blocking schemes, the Pats sequence in play-action to hunt explosive passing plays.
Now that we've established the roles, it brings us to the Patriots signing Pro Bowl running back Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott's arrival in Foxborough gives the Patriots an experienced veteran backup to lead-back Rhamondre Stevenson. Stevenson was a rare all-purpose back for New England, accumulating a higher snap rate than any Pats running back in over a decade in 2022 (66.6%). Although Stevenson was highly productive, New England's RB1 openly spoke about wearing down late in the year.
Based on recent history, Elliott's role with the Patriots will likely take the load off Stevenson in the early-down mold. Elliott's elite pass-protecting skills, which we'll get to, leaves the door open for some passing game work. However, his between-the-tackles and short-yardage prowess could help the team manage Stevenson, a role they needed to fill after Damien Harris's departure in free agency this past offseason.
Harris, who was limited by injuries in the 2022 season, saw over 85 percent of his snaps come on first and second down. In 11 games, Harris carried the football a shade under ten times per game for a 17-game pace of 163 attempts for 714 yards (actual numbers: 106 attempts, 462 yards). After signing with the Bills in free agency, New England tried replacing Harris with veteran James Robinson, but Robinson was released in the spring, leaving a void behind Stevenson for an experienced ball carrier in the Harris mold.
By using Rhamondre more sparingly on early downs, Stevenson can continue working in passing situations, where he caught 69 passes last season and continues to build great chemistry with quarterback Mac Jones. For instance, Stevenson got loose in the open field during a two-minute period for a roughly 40-yard touchdown in Monday's practice. With the Pats wideouts crisscrossing with Stevenson on a mesh-style concept, Stevenson got lost in the traffic and was gone.
Along with good play design out of the backfield, Stevenson's rapport with Jones creates a valuable safety blanket and chain-mover when the Pats back gets favorable matchups. For those reasons, Stevenson projects as the top pass-catching back again this season.
Getting back to Zeke, he can free up Stevenson to continue a large role in obvious passing with his high IQ play and angry, downhill running style. As a seven-year veteran, Elliott's ability to read blocks between the tackles and finish short-yardage runs for first downs and touchdowns makes him a valuable addition. Elliott isn't the home run hitter he once was at this stage, but he moves the chains, gets what's blocked, and is one of the NFL's best pass-blocking backs.
Last season, Elliott ranked eighth among 42 qualified running backs in converting third-down carries into first-downs with a 72% success rate. The Pats new running back also ranked tenth in goal-line rushing success, which measures runs inside the five-yard line and had eight goal-line touchdowns, the third-most in the NFL.
BETWEEN THE TACKLES
Although his breakaway speed is diminishing at age 27, Elliott still shows the veteran savviness of an experienced ball carrier to maximize his blocking.
For example, the Cowboys are running a zone-lead concept where they use a fullback to add on a blocker to the weak side of the formation (run opposite the tight end). With the offensive line blocking outside zone, Colts nose tackle Grover Stewart penetrates the A-Gap on a difficult reach block for the center, who is out-leveraged by Stewart at the snap. Elliott immediately recognized Stewart had the play-side blown up, cuts back across the formation, and used the lead-blocker walling off the off-ball linebacker to turn this run into a positive play.
This time, Dallas is blocking a split-flow zone scheme where the offensive line blocks outside zone to the right, and the tight end "sifts" across the formation in the opposite direction. The run-blocking scheme gets the Texans defense to over-pursue to the play side, and Elliott wisely cuts it back. Once he's into the secondary, bringing the 225-pound running back down takes several defensive backs.
Ellliott's explosiveness into the second and third levels was once elite, routinely breaking off 15-plus yards in his early years with the Cowboys. In the last three seasons, Zeke only has 19 such runs. The Pats new running back had 22 explosive runs in his rookie year alone.
The top gear Elliott once possessed might not be there anymore, but he still forced a respectable 30 missed tackles and averaged 2.74 yards after contact on his 231 attempts last season. As the examples show, Elliott is a powerful runner who is difficult to bring down in the secondary and uses good power behind his pads to punch the ball into the end zone as a goal-line back.
The Pats new running back's block processing/recognition and power will make him a capable ball carrier to work alongside Stevenson in New England's early-down offense.
Besides Elliott's abilities as a runner, he has the reputation of being an elite pass protector to pick up blitzes. Elliott's pass-blocking talent is well-documented, but his awareness was even better than expected after reviewing his 2022 film – he's spectacular in this sense.
The Cowboys trusted him so much as a blocker that they had certain protections that relied on Elliott being an extra blocker, along with the very talented Dallas offensive line. His technique is sound to absorb oncoming defenders, but his awareness/reads are next-level good.
In this example, Houston blitzes the off-ball linebacker to the left of the center to force the protection to slide to the quarterback's left. Anticipating the slide, the Texans sent the opposite slot corner on a blitz. With the center opening to his left, Elliott recognizes that Dallas has 3-on-3 with the center working to the left. After seeing that they have three blockers to three rushers on the left, Elliott works his eyes backside in time to block the blitzing slot defender to keep the QB clean.
Here's another instance where Elliott sniffs out a blitz to protect the quarterback. This time, the Titans defense starts in a two-high safety shell with Dallas showing run with two tight ends and the quarterback under center. Instead, the Cowboys are running play-action, and when the weak side safety rotates down into a blitzing position, Elliott sees it. Rather than carrying out an extended fake, Elliott aborts the fake to block the blitzing safety, keeping the pass play alive.
With the expectation that the Patriots will use Elliott on early downs, he can "save" play-action concepts by scanning for blitzers. When the Pats face heavy blitzing third-down defenses, they could also play Elliott in the passing game to pass protect with the quarterback in shotgun.
Regardless of the situation, Elliott's excellent pass-blocking will help the offense avoid negative plays.
In my latest 53-man roster projection following the preseason opener, we had the Patriots carrying only three running backs on their current roster.
The assumption was that they'd add a veteran back like Elliott to the mix, giving them a known commodity behind Stevenson while the team continues to develop second-year running backs Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris; adding Elliott fills a need, no doubt about that.
Although it's a mostly positive signing, the one downside is what it could signal for their pair of day-three selections in the 2022 NFL Draft. Strong's big-play ability occasionally flashes, but he suffered an undisclosed injury against the Texans that caused him to miss the last two practices before the team headed out to Green Bay. Harris, on the other hand, breaks tackles occasionally with solid contact balance but isn't a dynamic game-changer. Plus, it's unclear if the team trusts either in a complex passing system.
The Patriots typically carry four running backs on the 53-man roster, and at least three backs will be active on game day. The door isn't closed on Harris or Strong contributing, but trust is a big word for the team this season, and the young backs don't have a large enough sample to truly rely on them.
New England's brass might've decided to go with a less expensive option if Harris or Strong truly popped this summer. But neither has in what frankly has been tough running conditions working behind a banged-up offensive line.
The other angle here is that the move solidifies the Patriots winning formula this season: great defense, top running game, and pick your spots in the passing game. We already knew this was the plan, but with a potential two-headed monster in the backfield, it reinforces the blueprint.
In recent NFL history, even at its peak, the ground-and-pound with an elite defense strategy has a lower ceiling than teams who light up the scoreboard offensively. Belichick is zigging as defenses get smaller to match high-speed offenses while everyone else zags. We'll see if it works.
The Patriots offense needed running back depth to supplement Stevenson and get it with one of the best available options in Elliott.