By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
A clear line has been drawn to prove James White’s massive impact on the Patriots offense.
The Pats this year are 9-0 when White gets 13 or more combined carries and targets, and 0-5 when he gets 12 or fewer (h/t Zack Cox). He has averaged 14 touches in the Patriots’ nine wins, and only 7.4 in their five losses. Football is a complicated game, but White’s importance to making the Patriots’ operation work is pretty simple. It’s huge.
You can combine internal and external factors to explain that. It’s no surprise that the offense has struggled and the team hasn’t been as successful when White is being defended well, or isn’t as involved in the offense as in other games. But the correlation is about as glaring as it can be. If the Patriots are going to be successful and consistent on offense, White likely needs to be heavily involved.
Sunday’s opponent, the Buffalo Bills, presents an opportunity for White to get rolling again.
Despite a lot of talk about quarterback Josh Allen and the ways he could beat the Patriots with his arm or his legs, the key matchup in Sunday’s game is still Tom Brady & Co. against a tough Buffalo defense. And crucial to the Patriots’ attack will likely be White coming out of the backfield, based on his 10 catches last time the teams played.
White caught 10 of his 12 targets in the Patriots’ 25-6 win over the Bills on Monday Night Football, mainly because he found ways to get open early in his routes against Buffalo’s zone looks. Brady consistently hit him with screens, dump-offs and check-downs, which he parlayed into 79 receiving yards. He was an effective chains-mover, converting six of his 10 catches for first downs, including twice on third down. He also scored the Patriots’ only offensive touchdown of the game on a one-yard rush.
“They’re going to make you work for it”
Despite his success last time against the Bills, White says he he was simply taking what the defense gave him.
“They play a lot of zone defense so naturally versus zone defense, a lot of check-downs can happen,” White said on Wednesday. “So not just myself – Rex [Burkhead], Sony [Michel] have to be available there if we’re open, catch the ball, get as many yards as possible and protect it. They’re a defense that makes you drive the ball down the field so they’re going to make you work for it.”
He’s damn right about that. White enters Week 16 fifth in the NFL with 393 yards after the catch (YAC), per data from FOX Sports – but the Bills should make YAC as hard to get as it’s been all season.
Even in his 10-catch game in Week 8, the Bills stayed disciplined in their zones and closed quickly on White to limit his yards after the catch. They’ve done that to just about everybody this season, leading the league with just 184.7 passing yards and 10.0 yards per catch allowed per game.
The Bills have smart, fast players in the middle of the field that should make life tough on White. Impressive rookie linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, as well as safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, are likely to key on him as a player to stop.
That’s especially true now that there’s much less to worry about at receiver. Josh Gordon is stepping away from the team as another reported suspension looms, leaving the Pats as dangerously thin at the position as they were entering the season.
“We count on him a lot”
Brady and the Patriots found a way to storm to a 9-3 start amid plenty of ups and downs on offense. But the shining light, the one reasonably consistent threat, was White. He scored 10 touchdowns in his first nine games, and he’s already broken the franchise single-season record for receptions. But unfortunately, he’s now gone five weeks in a row without finding the end zone and his catches per game have dipped from 6.8 to 4.
Unsurprisingly, White’s drop in production has correlated to the offense as a whole. They averaged 27.7 points per game on offense in their first nine games; they’ve averaged 20.8 points since.
The Patriots simply need White more than ever to step up and be a go-to guy for Brady. They’ll have to get that rolling against a stiff test in the Bills defense, but White at least showed in the first game against Buffalo that he can get open and be a threat to make plays after the catch. The Bills defense will make you work, but White has a chance to make them work too.
“James has done a great job for us and he’s a big part of what we do every week,” Brady said on Friday. “Some weeks he gets it a little more than others. Any time the ball is in his hands we’re in good shape, because he does a good job with it, taking care of it. He’s a big factor every game, so we count on him a lot.”
Especially now, White should be getting the ball in his hands as much as ever.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.