Thursday, November 19, 2020

Patriots RB Rex Burkhead provides invaluable component to offense


By Karen Guregan

November 19, 2020

It’s fourth down. The season’s on the line. The Patriots need four yards to keep a last-minute drive alive. They need someone to make a play.

Whose number does Josh McDaniels call in that gotta-have-it moment?

Of course, the Patriots offensive coordinator might go with a Cam Newton keeper. That’s in the realm of possibility. So is a pass to James White. Both are good options in that scenario.

A sleeper choice?

Rex Burkhead, either on the ground or in the air.

The running back has been reliable all year, especially in crucial spots. If the need is three yards, he’ll deliver three yards. If a special play is needed to get in the end zone, Burkhead will make the play.

Over the years, the veteran back has emerged as a go-to guy in key spots for the Patriots.

“Whenever you put him in the game, he’s ready to go. Whether it’s first down, third down, red zone, two-minute, it doesn’t make any difference. Rex is ready to go,” said McDaniels. “He works really hard to be prepared. I have a lot of confidence and faith in all our backs. And Rex certainly has a skill set that allows you to use him in different ways.

“He’s run the ball very effectively this year, he’s caught the ball out of the backfield,” McDaniels went on. “He’s picked up the blitz. Again, there’s not a lot of things Rex doesn’t do well. Rex has made himself that kind of player with the way he works, and the way he approaches each week. He’s a very valuable piece to our team.”

On Sunday, he caught two touchdown passes, one from Newton, and one from Jakobi Meyers. He was a complement to Damien Harris in the rushing attack with six carries for 31 yards.

But let’s go inside the numbers to get a better view of Burkhead’s impact.

Second quarter, down 7-0, the Patriots faced a third-and-3 from the Baltimore 34-yard line. Burkhead’s number was called and he picked up four. First down, the chains kept moving. Three plays later, the Patriots were in the end zone, as Newton hooked up with Burkhead for a 7-yard touchdown pass on a first-and-goal from the 7, with the running back diving in for the score.

Later in the quarter, second-and-6 from the Ravens’ 24, McDaniels pulled out the trick play, with wideout Meyers hitting Burkhead in the end zone. It was a great pass by Meyers factoring in the elements, but an even better move by Burkhead to find the ball and create the necessary space to catch it.

This season, he’s just managed to step up his game in those key spots, with three rushing touchdowns and three receiving scores overall. Pro Football Focus has Burkhead rated as the ninth-best running back in the league. Harris is No. 2 and making the most of his opportunity in the lead role, but Burkhead has also established himself as an integral member of Ivan Fears’ running backs room.

Former Patriots fullback Heath Evans, who keeps tabs on his former team, is aware of what Burkhead brings to the table. So are the Patriots.

“They know good and well, if called upon in the fourth quarter, down three, Rex will find a way to get the job done,” said Evans. “Rex is a very, very gifted football player. Very gifted physically, but I think he’s more gifted mentally than he is physically, and that’s not a knock, that’s a compliment.”

Burkhead is, and has always been, Bill Belichick’s favorite kind of football player. He’s smart, tough, and does whatever it takes to make the necessary play.

In other words, he’s a gamer.

Perhaps former Patriots great Troy Brown, who now works with running backs on Belichick’s coaching staff, offered the best definition of “gamer” a few years ago, describing what the term meant in his mind.

“It’s someone who, when the important moments come up, is not fazed or overwhelmed by the big game,” said Brown, a big-time gamer himself during his playing days. “The pressure never really gets to him no matter what the situation is in the game. When the opportunity comes for him to make the play, he seems to make it, and it makes a big difference in the outcome.”

Burkhead hasn’t been overwhelmed by the big moments. See the 2018 AFC Championship Game against the Chiefs for details. Burkhead was outstanding in finishing off the final drives in the fourth quarter and overtime. Then fast-forward to the Super Bowl, where his 26-yard run late in the fourth quarter helped set up the game-clinching field goal.

While Burkhead’s not a starter, the times he’s in the game are usually the most important. He’s just able to do so many things; be it running, catching the football, blitz pickup, playing special teams, etc.

And, he performs all of his assignments well. The coaching staff trusts him to make plays whenever the game is on the line.

“I see Rex as being so well-versed and so well-studied in the running schemes. He has that attention to detail, he knows why he’s running where he’s running for the exact amount of steps he’s supposed to be running to set up the scheme. I think it’s something that can be taught, but I think it’s much more of a skill set that people are born with and have the instincts,” said Evans.

“You see it on screens, even in his route-running, he has great timing in his head. He has a great understanding of what the defense is offering, where he’s supposed to be, and what the scheme is supposed to be. He’s the type of guy you want five of.”

Belichick would love five Burkhead clones, but has to settle for one. And he’s become the player the Patriots want with the ball in his hands in those clutch situations.

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