FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Nobody in the NFL finds solutions quite like Bill Belichick.
That’s why Cordarrelle Patterson, the kick returner and receiver for the Patriots, lined up as the featured running back in the I-formation over and over during another stab at winning on Sunday night.
It’s the Patriot Way. Somebody had to do it.
Yet even with Belichick’s extensive track record as the league’s most resourceful coach – he once converted receiver Troy Brown to cornerback in a pinch – it might have been too much to expect that Patterson would lead the team in rushing against the Packers.
But that’s exactly what happened in a game when the short-handed Patriots again had to roll without first-round rookie running back Sony Michel, out again with a knee injury.
“I said I wanted 25 carries this week,” Patterson maintained after the 31-17 win.
He wound up with 61 yards on 11 runs, getting his most significant backfield duty late in the first half after utility threat James White hobbled to the sideline with a foot injury. White eventually returned, but Patterson finished the drive by blasting up the middle for a 5-yard touchdown. Later, he nearly scored on another goal-line plunge.
Plan B worked well enough.
“Whenever my number’s called,” Patterson said, “I’m ready for whatever for whatever I need to do on the football field.”
Patterson has also scored touchdowns this season off a long pass from Tom Brady and off a long kickoff return. It's striking that for a former first-round talent whose NFL journey was marked by disappointment on stops in Minnesota and Oakland, he is hitting a particular stride with the Patriots. He was obtained last spring from the Raiders – another Jon Gruden castoff – in a swap of late-round picks.
No, he likely isn’t destined to become a bread-and-butter back. Yet with his combination of size and speed, he’s been an intriguing option for spot backfield duty on every NFL stop. Belichick knew when traded for Patterson that he might help out in a pinch.
But even Belichick — who earlier this year placed running backs Rex Burkhead and Jeremy Hill on injured reserve and now waits on Michel’s recovery – didn’t envision the scenario to unfold as it has.
“Look, that’s the way it is in the National Football League,” Belichick said. “What looks like good depth can get washed away in a hurry.
“I mean, we thought we had good depth at running back and we did at one point in the year. But depth in August and depth in November are two different things. We have what we have now and hopefully that’ll improve. But we’ll see.”
In the meantime, Belichick – whose offense was also without injured all-pro tight end Rob Gronkowski on Sunday night – keeps dealing from the deck at hand.
Patterson wasn’t the only receiver with an expanded role that punctuated a creative night. Julian Edelman, a former quarterback at Kent State, set up the go-ahead TD in the fourth quarter with a 37-yard completion to White off a double pass that began with Brady throwing a lateral to the receiver. Edelman was also the target for a flea-flicker pass earlier in the game. And he, too, ran from the backfield and netted 28 yards on two carries.
In fact, the 13 rushing attempts by Patterson and Edelman were the most for wide receivers in a game for an NFL team since 1993, when Eric Metcalf carried 15 times for the Browns – then coached by Belichick.
“Our coaches do a great job of using what we have, using the talents of what we have,” Edelman said. “By no means am I saying I’m a talented thrower, but they do an awesome job with that stuff.”
The creative twists represented more signs that after stumbling in September during definitive back-to-back losses at Jacksonville and Detroit, the Patriots (7-2) have recalibrated to assume their usual position as one of the AFC’s top playoff contenders. Their winning streak has hit six games, and the Patriots scored at least 38 points in four of those contests.
Yet it’s still very much a work in progress. Although the defense had the most consistent pressure it has produced all season against Rodgers and came up with a fourth-quarter takeaway, it has been short on big plays for the much of the season. It is still too early to trust the unit as championship-caliber.
Just think: In one of the signature wins of the streak, the Patriots gave up 40 points to Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs … and had to sweat out the finish.
The effort by the offense on Sunday had some quirks, too. New England couldn’t score on four cracks from the 1-yard line in the third quarter, allowing Green Bay a goal-line stand when Brady’s fourth-down pass to Josh Gordon bounced off a defender as Gordon slipped on his corner route.
Gordon, a Browns castoff who, like Patterson, seems rejuvenated in New England, had a 55-yard touchdown catch the seal the outcome. And his presence represents another layer of the progress in play for Belichick’s team.
But Belichick knows: More solutions are needed. It’s a long way from the finish line.
Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.
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