I don’t often find myself writing about a 7th year running back with less than 300 career touches, but…here we are. Some already know the story of Dion Lewis but for those who don’t, he was lost in LeSean McCoy’s shadow dating all the way back to 2007 – four years before his pro-career began. The former Pitt Panthers have had decidedly different professional careers despite both dominating at the collegiate level. Lewis was drafted by Philadelphia in the 5th round of the 2011 draft to backup McCoy and quickly became a forgotten name.
After being buried on the Eagles depth chart his first two seasons in the league, Lewis found an opportunity with the Cleveland Browns. Unfortunately, that opportunity died before it even began as he broke his leg preseason Week 3 after dazzling all summer. The handling of Lewis post injury was interesting because both his teammates and opponents all shared similar sentiments – he looked just as impressive in the summer of 2014 as he did when he was on the verge of breaking out in 2013. Despite that, he could not find a roster to latch onto after being a late cut by the Browns. It took two years for him to get a real chance, and many may remember his breakout Week 1 in 2015 against Pittsburgh (15 carries, 69 yards, 4 receptions, 51 yards) but his 2015 campaign was also cut short as he tore his ACL Week 9 against Washington. This time he took longer than expected to recover from the ACL injury and by the time he was fit enough to play, the Patriots had already settled into a running back rotation – James White was the primary passing downs running back and LaGarette Blount handled the majority of the run-down responsibilities. Head coach Bill Belichick recognizing Lewis’ talent, found ways to get him on the field anyway but barring injury, there was no reason to disrupt what had been working all season which ultimately led them to a title.
That brings us to this year where coming into the season, once again, Lewis was facing an uphill battle for playing time. This is something non-priority prospects constantly have to battle, so this is not unique to Lewis. It is certainly frustrating to see a player constantly on the verge of breaking through to actually do it and then seemingly end up right back where he started. LaGarette Blount left but the Patriots replaced him with Mike Gillislee from the rival Buffalo Bills which was a major blow to Lewis’ opportunity. Gillislee isn’t the truck like the 250 lb. Blount, but he offers a very similar game so he seemed destined for a similar role.
The game script for the first two games held to form as Gillislee rumbled for 4 touchdowns on his 33 touches. That obviously wasn’t a problem, but his inefficient 3.4 yards per carry was concerning. As he stopped hitting pay-dirt and his inefficient running continued, a subtle shift in the snap count began. While Lewis’ 2015 breakout was heavily fueled by his ability in the passing game (36 receptions in 7 games) he was always a multi-dimensional back, averaging more than 4.4 yards per carry in each of his seasons in the league. Gillislee still out-snapped Lewis weeks 3-5, but the difference was being squeezed. The switch flipped Week 6 after Lewis’ 7-carry 53-yard performance at Tampa Bay. Gillislee wasn’t a liability as he rumbled for 52-yards on 12-carries, but with a long run of nine yards with fairly ordinary numbers, more explosiveness from the running back position was needed. Lewis and his 2nd best in the league yards after contact (3.91 yards per carry) not surprisingly, has taken advantage, compiling 134-yards on 25 total touches across the last two games as he has out-snapped Gillislee 55-26.
The change has happened and if you haven’t already it’s time to take advantage. If I were a conspiracy theorist I could argue this was all an elaborate plan by Belichick. Get Gillislee comfortable in the offense, then ease Lewis back into action to see if he can actually stay upright as a primary running back, but if he doesn’t? It’ll be a whole lot easier to shift back to Gillislee. I’m no tinfoil hat sort of guy though…I think anyway. While the Patriots may be on bye Week 9 they get a gift before the week off – the 31st ranked run defense in the NFL flying across the country to play a 1PM game. While the Lewis breakout has already began (and many saw it happen through the fog Sunday night) this upcoming Sunday is when he will light up the box score and maybe this time, he will even stay intact the rest of the way.
This week’s flavor of the week is: A Flying Pig
Bye week blues getting you down? Dion is your remedy. Get Dion on your roster before he’s airborne for good.