What an interesting week it has been. From Brady dressing up like Belichick for his press conference, or Gronk talking about taking care of his body. In the process sounding more like Brady than the guy who was joking about getting his 69th touchdown. There also was the highly anticipated return of Dion Lewis. Lewis who was placed on the PUP list during training camp has been watched closely as the season has progressed. For most of the season, locker room sightings were the only sign of the running back. With Lewis’s return to practice, the countdown has begun to his return to the lineup. The Patriots will have 21 days to activate Lewis to the active roster or else he will be placed on injured reserve.
For Patriots fans this is a very exciting time. Last season Dion Lewis was one of the most exciting running backs in the NFL when Lewis had 234 rushing yards through 7 games averaging 4.8 yards per carry while sharing duties with LeGarrette Blount. While Lewis showed promise as a runner his talents are best seen when he is a receiver. Last year he had 36 receptions for 388 yards and averaged 10.8 yards per catch,nearly 2 yards more than his replacement James White.
The bigger difference between the two is their ability as runners. When White is in the game the play is usually going to be a pass, giving the defense a leg up. With Lewis in the backfield, the defense does not know what the play will be. So far this season White has only run the ball 24 times for a total of 92 yards equating to 3.8 yards a carry.
Before his injury last year Lewis was the 11th ranked running back in the league and was the owner of the highest elusive rating ever seen. He had started to appear as a 3 down back for the New England offense. This year things are shaping up to be different. With Blount looking revitalized and healthy as ever it is unlikely he will be off the field on first and second down very often. There is also the emergence of James White who despite being inferior to Lewis for the reasons above is the owner of the top receiving grade among running backs this year. It is the emergence of these two players that gives the Patriots plenty of options.
That being said there is only one option the Patriots should take, and that would be the long one. While Lewis clearly will put the Patriots offense on another level that James White can’t take them to, there is no reason to rush the process. Here are some reasons.
1. The defense is holding opponents to only 15 points per game.
It may be true that Dion Lewis will boost the Pats offense, but there have been few problems in his absence. Through 7 games the Patriots are the owners of the best record in the AFC and are already well on their way to another AFC East crown.
Usually known for a dynamic offense the Patriots have also won games with their number one ranked scoring defense in the AFC. So far the unit is only giving up 15.3 points a game, almost 5 less than last year. This has taken pressure off the Patriots offense which has often gone into clock killing mode this year.
The point is, the Patriots are winning games. They do not need to rush one of their most valuable players back just to blow out teams that they would likely beat anyway. With a bye week coming up they can give Lewis a week of non-game plan specific practice to get him back into rhythm with the offense and especially Brady. After that with the Pats having a good record they can give him another week to get prepared before they add him to the active roster. Giving Lewis three weeks of practice will allow him to be prepared for his first game action, and make sure he is fully healthy in his return.
2. LeGarrette Blount and James White are capable of carrying the offensive load
One of the most encouraging development this season has been the play of James White and LeGarrette Blount. The latter is on track for the best season of his career. Though 7 weeks he is the 5th leading rusher with 566 yards. He also is tied for the lead in rushing touchdowns with 8.
Meanwhile James White has been having quite a season himself. As mentioned above he has the highest receiving grade of any running back this season. So far he has accumulated 244 yards on 27 catches for an average of 9 yards a catch. A lot of his value has been in the screen
game, making decisive cuts and waiting for his blocks to develop down field. He has caught 3 touchdowns since Brady’s return to the team, highlighting his importance.
The high productivity of these two players gives the Patriots the ability to slowly integrate Dion Lewis into the lineup. This method was seen earlier this season with Rob Gronkowski. In his first week back Gronk only played 14 snaps giving him a feel for the offense and game action. The following week he played 39 snaps but was not asked to run many routes and was mainly used for blocking. Finally with Tom Brady’s return against Cleveland, Gronk was on the field for 65 snaps which was still below his career average. This cautious approach should be applied to Dion Lewis.
Slowly easing Lewis back into action will allow him to get a feel for game speed before he is needed to help carry the offense. When he is completely back up to speed the Patriots can release him on the NFL and add another wrinkle to the already dominant Patriots offense.
3. The Patriots will need hm for the stretch run if White or Blount get tired or injured.
Last season there was one thing that prevented the Patriots from playing their best football in January, injuries. Injuries were the single biggest issue for the Patriots last season. With Gronk going down with a knee injury, and Edelman out for the last half the season, it shows the importance of a healthy roster late in the season. With both of them gone, the Patriots lost home field advantage, forcing to go to Denver to face the Broncos, perhaps preventing another trip to the Superbowl.
If the Patriots slowly bring Dion Lewis back into the fold it will help prevent any setbacks and ensure his availability for the stretch run and playoffs.
Last season the offense averaged a yard more per play with Lewis on the field, in large part because of his ability to slip through tackles. This added element will help insure the offense will continue to run efficiently. With no film to look at to help game plan for Lewis, it will be even harder to stop the Patriots offense. Rushing him back will not only increase chance for injury, but also will reveal the Pats trump card a little too soon.
All in all it is clear that the Patriots do not need to rush Lewis back. As exciting as a prospect it is to have him back on the field, it is more important to have him contribute when a Super Bowl is on the line. Until then, they can continue to rely on James White and Blount to split running back duties. This will give Lewis plenty of time to get back to his old self so he can propel the Patriots into a deep playoff run and hopefully another championship.