Why the New England Patriots should retire the third down back

RB Rhamondre Stevenson should surpass his 14 receptions last year, if the New England Patriots use him as a receiver more. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)
RB Rhamondre Stevenson should surpass his 14 receptions last year, if the New England Patriots use him as a receiver more. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images) /

The New England Patriots don’t have to adjust to life without James White. They already did after losing him since Week 3 last season. Brandon Bolden took over White’s duties for the remaining 14 games and the offense didn’t lose anything.

Bolden left New England as a free agent this spring. That’s OK, because the Patriots signed free agent Ty Montgomery. He has experience as a runner and receiver, so he’ll be comfortable as a third down back.

That’s reassuring, but the New England Patriots wouldn’t get the most out of Montgomery if his role is just a third down back. Designating Montgomery for just third downs would be a disservice for Montgomery, the other Patriots running backs and for the offense.

For the New England Patriots to get the most out of their backfield, they should use all of the running backs as receivers

After the Patriots cut the roster down to 53 players, the backfield will consist of Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson and Pierre Strong Jr. Montgomery is listed as a receiver, but he will see ample time in the backfield.

While they all have different styles and bring different attributes to the running back position, all of them have solid hands. Harris caught 85 percent (18-of-21) of his targets. As a rookie Stevenson looked very comfortable on his 14 receptions. Strong Jr. had at least 20 receptions for two years straight for South Dakota State. And Montgomery speaks for himself.

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Since they all can catch, the Patriots should take full advantage of that. It will make the offense a little more unpredictable.

Harris, Stevenson and Strong Jr. might not be good enough to be split out wide like Montgomery can, but they can certainly be used in the screen game. Quarterback Mac Jones shouldn’t hesitate to dump the ball off when under pressure or when nothing opens up downfield. And any of the backs, when defended by a linebacker, could have the advantage in the open field.

Imagine New England’s offense lines up a run formation. The defense substitutes in kind, putting a heavy lineup with a big, slow linebacker (or two) on the field. Jones could audible out of the run play and motion Harris or Stevenson out of the backfield and line up as a receiver.

A quick hitch/screen pass to either one forces a run defender to try to tackle Harris or Stevenson in space. That’s in New England’s favor. Add a convoy of blockers and the Patriots could get a good gain out of the play.

The Patriots wouldn’t get the same element of surprise with a designated third down back. Whether it was White, Kevin Faulk or any of the third down backs in head coach Bill Belichick’s history, opponents expected a pass whenever any of them joined the huddle. Anticipating a pass coming, opponents would substitute to match up accordingly.

The advantage in that situation would be calling a run against lighter defensive personnel.  Montgomery can do that.

Instead of thinking of Montgomery as the next White, a better model would be Rex Burkhead. In four years with the Patriots, Burkhead averaged about 90 touches per season, with about two thirds of those touches as a runner.

Compare that to White’s touches, which were close to or exceeded 60 percent receptions four out of six seasons from 2015-2020.

Burkhead was more of a hybrid/change of pace back than third down. White was the third down back every year with Burkhead. The workhorses were Dion Lewis, Sony Michel and Harris. Burkhead made his mark between those roles, and he was great at it.

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Montgomery could thrive in a similar role. At 6-0 216 pounds, he has the build to take a hit either between the tackles or going across the middle. If opponents forget about that, then Montgomery could gash defenses when Jones motions Montgomery into the backfield with a nickel or dime defense on the field.

Or Jones audibles from an off-tackle run to a play action pass. If the linebackers bite hard, any of the backs could be several feet behind the defense wide open before the defense can recover.

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Belichick sounds like he’s leaning towards using all backs as receivers. In an interview with Bob Socci, Belichick broke down the finer points of a two-down back adding receiving to his game. He said, in part:

"When you play players on every down, then you’re looking at a different kind of player, and a different set of responsibilities. Some of those are advantages for us. Some of them may not be advantages."

Departing from the prototypical, small third down back is one thing. Doing away with the position entirely and utilizing all running backs for all situations is a small tweak that could reap huge benefits for the offense.