With the big game featuring a five-time Super Bowl champion and an underdog turned savior at the two quarterback spots, that seems to be the position key. But a closer look at the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots rosters shows that the play of the backfield may be just as crucial.
Both squads enter with immense depth at running back, which has also yielded plenty of diversity from the position. The ability to plug in plenty of running backs, each with a tailored skill set, opens up the playbook for both head coaches.
The Patriots have made an art of cycling through four to five backs for years now, keying in on one runner to dominate the carries responsibilities for a few weeks before passing the mantle to another.
Their stable of backs this season has been Dion Lewis, James White, Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee and Brandon Bolden. They also have a James Devlin at the fullback position.
“Draft choices, waiver wire, trades and then the development of those players, in the scheme and conditioning, it is a combination of a lot of things,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick on the depth they continually create. “But our personnel staff does a great job, they do a good job beating the bushes for me.”
Another season, another crop of contributors from the backfield. The season started out with the ground and pound of Gillislee, using his smash-mouth style to give the Patriots force upfront. They worked Burkhead into the passing attack and had him as a red zone threat, giving the opponents new phase to deal with down in the goal line.
It was a staging month to the main show: Lewis taking over the backfield in October, stabilized by the help that Devlin offers and the Patriots had the slippery runner they needed to counter the passing attack that quarterback Tom Brady brings to the table.
And then there is White, one of the better pass catching back in the NFL to create mismatches against linebackers and safeties.
The entire mosaic of the Patriots backfield has created plenty of options to fall back to, with the common theme between all of them is the ability to make a quick decision and burn a defense in space.
If the Patriots running backs represent the finesse, then the Eagles will be bringing the punch to the proceedings. The backfield is crossed with bigger backs that lower the shoulder in the hole and look to wear on the defense with power.
LeGarrette Blount has been a power runner between the tackles since he entered the league in 2010. He is a hard nose runner with a knack for finding the end zone, fresh off his 18 touchdown season in 2016.
“It is a tough task to go against Blount,” said former teammate Devin McCourty, safety for the Patriots. “He is one of those backs that gets better as the game goes along, it is hard to bring him down, especially in the fourth quarter… but somebody has to.”
The Eagles secured Jay Ajayi from the Miami Dolphins via trade midway through the season. This offered another tough, big-shouldered back to run hard between the tackles. Ajayi also brought a combination of explosion with his power, which the Eagles lacked before his arrival. He posted four runs of over 20 yards, which pairs nicely with his 4.2 yards per carry.
The last piece for the Eagles is rookie runner Corey Clement. When Darren Sproles went down with a season-ending injury, Clement was the perfect replacement for the scat back role that Sproles had occupied. Clement became a third down, pass-catching option in the Eagles offense who could outpace linebackers in space and outside the hash marks.
“They put up points against everyone and have a lot of different weapons and if you aren’t playing sound defense, they will put 20 points on the board,” said McCourty on their depth. “Nobody comes in doubting them or doubting Foles.”
Why They Are Key
Both teams present different matchups for their opponent with the unique depth on their respective rosters. The Patriots will be able to take advantage of the slot corners with running backs running routes and forcing the Eagles to cover another level in the passing attack.
The Eagles will be able to run right at the linebackers of the Patriots, a position group that is not exceptionally fast or deep. They can switch between power speed and brute force with Ajayi and Blount, especially in the red zone.
More importantly, both defenses will be after the quarterbacks, which means quick and creative ways to get the running backs in space will be key for the offense in the game.
The running backs will be key because of the versatility they give each offense, along with the help they give their quarterbacks.
Photo: In this Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, file photo, Philadelphia Eagles’ Jay Ajayi (36) carries the ball during an NFL divisional playoff football game against the Atlanta Falcons in Philadelphia. The Eagles and the New England Patriots are set to meet in Super Bowl 52 on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)