James White, Rex Burkhead unsung heroes of Week 1
While the Patriots defense, Josh Gordon, and Phillip Dorsett stole all the headlines, Rex Burkhead and James White also deserve recognition.
Unquestionably, the three biggest stars of the New England Patriots‘ Sunday night thrashing of the Pittsburgh Steelers were Josh Gordon, Phillip Dorsett, and Bill Belichick’s defense as a whole.
Dorsett and Gordon together combined for all three of New England’s touchdowns; they also accounted for nearly a third of Tom Brady’s completions, and nearly half of the Patriots’ total yards through the air. The New England defense held the Pittsburgh offense to just 32 total rushing yards on the ground, and just three measly points on the scoreboard.
It’s no surprise then that these were the dominant storylines coming out of the game. But lost in all this justifiable excitement – not to mention all the Antonio Brown hoopla – was the terrific performance of a pair of Patriots running backs.
Especially with Sony Michel struggling to get much of anything going on the ground, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels turned to James White and Rex Burkhead to power the New England rushing attack. With both players as much a threat to catch the ball as they are to run with it, the Steelers defense was unable to stack the box when either was in the game… the way they routinely did for Michel.
The result was yards, yards, and more yards.
Burkhead actually finished the game as New England’s leading rusher, averaging a robust 5.5 yards per attempt en route to 44 yards on just eight carries. White had an even higher average at 6.5 yards per clip, finishing with 26 yards on his four carries. Together, they accounted for nearly 70% of the Patriots’ ground game on a night when Michel averaged less than one yard per tote.
Again, part of that production comes from defenses having to account for their abilities as receivers.
Sure enough, both White and Burkhead did plenty of damage through the air as well against Pittsburgh, finishing as the team’s fourth and fifth-leading receivers on the night, respectively. White had five receptions on seven targets for 56 yards. Burkhead caught five of his eight targets for 41 yards.
The Patriots have a long and prolific history employing pass-catching running backs who can do it all for Tom Brady and the team. Whether it’s been Shane Vereen, Dion Lewis, or Kevin Faulk, New England loves the mismatch that these Swiss Army knife-types create against opposing defenses.
James White has enjoyed a higher profile over the years thanks in no small part to his phenomenal, MVP-worthy performance against the Atlanta Falcons in the Patriots’ historic Super Bowl 51 comeback. Still, he’s routinely undervalued and criminally underestimated by anyone outside of PPR fantasy football players.
Rex Burkhead, on the other hand, is probably a relative unknown to anyone outside of the six New England states or Ohio (where he once played for the Cincinnati Bengals). Even though he’s struggled a bit with injuries during his NFL career, when he’s healthy, he represents one of the more dynamic two-way offensive players in the league today.
Both players are still young as well. Burkhead is just 29 years old and White is only 27; together, they represent a bright future in New England as reliable safety valves for Brady, who also know how to move the sticks when they have to as pure running backs. Both men deserve more recognition for their solid contributions on Sunday night.