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FOXBOROUGH — Before we turn the page to the Divisional Round playoffs, the bye week gives us a chance to reflect on the regular season.
At his press conference on Wednesday, head coach Bill Belichick spoke about a terrific fifth season for running back James White.
White set new franchise records in receptions (87) and receiving yards (751) for a running back, but Belichick noted that the 26-year-old wasn’t used in that role often at the University of Wisconsin.
“I think he’s improved in the passing game here. He did some of that at Wisconsin. He was used some as a slot receiver, but he ran the ball more than he caught it there. Here, I mean, I don’t know what the numbers are, but he’s caught the ball a lot for us. He’s been a key player in the passing game, although he’s certainly had contributions in the running game, too. But, I’d say he’s done more in the passing game than what he had shown there – not saying he didn’t do it there, but it was just, I would say, expanded here,” Belichick said.
In four seasons with the Badgers, the Patriots’ 2014 fourth-round pick only caught 73 passes compared to 643 rushing attempts, but White is now one of the premier receiving backs in the NFL.
This season, White finished in the top three in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns through the air among running backs.
Although his role as a receiver has expanded as a pro, White said that his ability to adapt to a new role stems from a feel for the game of football that started in the early years of his life.
“Probably my dad, brother, friends, just playing in the yard, playing Little League football, a lot of coaches that helped me learn the game of football to this day,” White said when asked about where he got his instincts for the game. “It’s not just one thing. It’s a lot of people that helped me learn the game of football and just constantly working, working by yourself, working with friends, competing. Over 23 years of my life or so, more than that or whatever playing football, you only get better if you keep practicing at it.”
Along with the raw stats, White was also among the leaders in yards after the catch and red zone efficiency.
The Pats running back ranked fourth in the NFL with 665 of his 751 receiving yards coming after the catch and was tied for fifth in the league in receiving touchdowns in the red zone (seven).
In Sunday’s win over the Jets, White combined all of his abilities to tally his seventh receiving touchdown of the season.
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Thanks to some creative personnel usage from offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, the Patriots got White one-on-one with Jets linebacker Neville Hewitt over the middle. White shook Hewitt at the top of the route and broke over the middle easily pulling away from the linebacker in coverage. Then, he ran 14 yards after the catch to put give the Patriots the lead in the first quarter.
Asked about the play White said, “something that we talk about all the time as an offense is if you get the one-on-ones you gotta win those situations.”
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White also had a career-high 425 rushing yards and five touchdowns this season on 94 carries, more than doubling his career high in rushing attempts for a season.
“There are some more opportunities, some just finding ways to hit holes harder, make guys miss, just try to do the right thing,” White said of his uptick in rushing production. “I think we’ve improved on our run game a lot this year. The offensive line’s been doing a great job blocking, receivers, tight ends, James Develin – they’ve been doing a great job for us and making our job a little bit easier.”
As they head into the playoffs, the Patriots co-captain will be a focal point of the offense, and that’s nothing new for one of their best postseason performers.
After all, in the team’s last two trips to the Super Bowl, White has 205 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns, including an MVP-type performance in Super Bowl LI (139 yards, three touchdowns, one two-point conversion).
White said that raising his game in the postseason, something he’s been able to do as well as anyone outside of Tom Brady of late is the mantra for the entire team, not just him.
“I think everybody in this building tries to raise their level of intensity in the playoffs,” White said. “As I said, you lose, you go home, so you’ve got to play your best football. You never know which play’s going to make a difference in the end of the game, so you’ve got to make each play you go out there and play, you’ve got to make it count. I think that’s the approach that everybody tries to have.”
If the Patriots want to advance to an eighth consecutive AFC Championship Game, they’ll need White to be heavily involved, something that hasn’t always been the case in some of their losses this season.
But until the playoffs officially begin for New England, let’s take a second to appreciate the best season ever for a Patriots running back in the passing game.
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