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Backfield of Forgotten Men

Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount were seen as misfits at previous NFL stops. Both are thriving in New England — and have given the Patriots an element that causes nightmares for opposing defenses.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Dion Lewis is trying to be polite, but it’s time for him to leave. It’s midnight, nearly half an hour after the Patriots’ 34–16 stomping of the Texans, and a horde of reporters is lingering at his locker. It started five rows deep, and as Saturday turns to Sunday, about a dozen microphones remain pointed his way. “I gotta go,” Lewis says to no one in particular, peering into the distance, plotting his escape.

The 26-year-old running back made history earlier that evening by becoming the first NFL player ever to score a rushing, receiving, and kick return touchdown in a single playoff game. He was the hero, and the crowd surrounding him in the locker room is befitting of one. This scene would have been tough to imagine after Lewis’s first visit to Gillette Stadium nearly two and a half years ago. Cut by the Browns late in training camp in 2014, Lewis spent most of that season searching for a home.

Dion Lewis (AP Images)
Dion Lewis (AP Images)

A tryout with the Patriots had gone well, but their roster at the time was stocked at his position. Lewis, four years removed from back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing campaigns at the University of Pittsburgh, was forced to watch football from his couch. When a reporter asks if Lewis, looking back, thought he’d return to this locker room, he pauses for a beat. “Probably not, if you go back to what was that, 2014?” he says. “I wouldn’t think that back then. But as hard as I’d worked, I knew that anything was possible.”

After fielding a few more questions, Lewis, who’s been fully dressed in a white bomber jacket, matching T-shirt, and a pair of shredded jeans for a while now, makes his way toward the door.

Almost directly across the room from Lewis’s locker sits the one belonging to LeGarrette Blount. By the time Lewis jukes past the final smattering of reporters, Blount is long gone. The 30-year-old running back had a quiet night in the blowout win — eight carries for 31 yards — but his performance during the 2016 season was thunderous: He finished with career highs in rushing attempts (299), yards (1,161), and touchdowns (18), that last mark a franchise record.

Blount followed his own twisted road to the Patriots. The former Tampa Bay back was traded to New England in April 2013. After playing a single season under Bill Belichick, he hit free agency and signed with the Steelers. Pittsburgh cut him 11 games into the 2014 campaign, and Belichick, who’d never wanted him to leave, scooped him up immediately. He’s been with the franchise ever since.

Lewis and Blount couldn’t look more different. The hulking Blount stands four inches taller and 55 pounds heavier than his 5-foot-8, 195-pound counterpart. Blount wants to crush an opponent’s soul. Lewis would rather shred his ankles. Yet together they embody the ideals that have propelled New England to six consecutive AFC championship game appearances. Former castoffs shunned elsewhere for what they couldn’t do, both have been embraced by the Patriots for what they can. In the process, they’ve formed what might be Belichick’s most complete backfield since the days of Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk.

When Patriots left tackle Nate Solder first saw Blount, it was hard for him to believe he was looking at a running back. “He was like a D-end,” Solder says, laughing. At 6 feet and a listed weight of 250 pounds, Blount is the sort of battering ram who has become scarce in a league now obsessed with pass-catching backs. Only two players who weigh at least 240 pounds finished the season with 100 or more carries — Blount and Tennessee’s Herculean rookie Derrick Henry.

Before landing in New England, Blount had posted a 1,000-yard season as a rookie with the Buccaneers in 2010, but to most he remained That Guy Who Threw The Punch. In the moments following a 19–8 loss to Boise State during his final college season at Oregon, Blount unleashed a right hook that caught Broncos defensive Byron Hout in the jaw, sending him tumbling to the bright blue turf. The blow was broadcast by ESPN, and the clip soon circulated everywhere. Oregon suspended Blount, who missed the next 10 games. Despite averaging 7.3 yards per carry and scoring 17 touchdowns as a junior, he ultimately went undrafted.

LeGarrette Blount (AP Images)
LeGarrette Blount (AP Images)

A few years later, the Patriots saw him as an asset, and for the price of Jeff Demps (a seldom-used return specialist who split his time between football and training for the Olympics) and a seventh-round pick, New England was able to bring in a back unlike any other on its roster. The Patriots already had a dangerous pass-catching option in Shane Vereen and a dependable runner in Stevan Ridley. Now, they also had a wrecking ball. Blount dwarfed most fellow backs in the league, and his extra bulk didn’t hinder his top-end speed when he got going. “LeGarrette’s a really unique guy,” says New England fullback James Develin. “He’s got the size of a fullback, but he’s got a lot of quickness, a lot of agility. You see him spinning guys around, jumping over people, but he’s also got the size. You’ve just got to let him get started.”

In 2013, Blount carried 153 times for 772 yards with seven scores. Belichick even deployed him as a kick returner, and in a Week 17 win over Buffalo he brought one back 83 yards. But Blount’s lasting moment from that season came in a 55–31 rout of the Steelers. With less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter, he stumbled into the south end zone from 5 yards out. As he made his way near the stands, he posed in front of the End Zone Militia, a group of Revolutionary War reenactors who fire muskets after every New England touchdown. Just like that, a trademark celebration was born.

Bob Elliott, from Southboro, Massachusetts, has been a member of the End Zone Militia since 1998, when the Pats still played in the old Foxboro Stadium. He carries a photo of Blount’s celebration on his cellphone, and says that as the team approaches the south goal line, he and his fellow minutemen pine for the back to find pay dirt. This season, Blount was more than willing to oblige. His 18 rushing touchdowns were the most in the NFL, and while his 3.9 yards-per-carry average may not seem impressive, the situations in which New England uses him don’t lend to gaudy efficiency numbers. Eleven of Blount’s 18 scores came from the 1-yard line.

Last season, with a healthy Rob Gronkowski, New England threw the ball 55.7 percent of the time in goal-to-go situations from at or inside the 5-yard line. This season, with Gronk on the shelf since early December, that figure has fallen to 32.1 percent. In a Gronk-less universe, Blount has emerged as New England’s most potent red zone weapon.

Success or failure in the NFL is often about timing, and for much of Lewis’s career he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was picked by the Eagles in the fifth round of the 2011 draft, when head coach Andy Reid controlled the roster. After Chip Kelly, with his preference for bigger backs, took over in 2013, Lewis quickly became expendable. Rather than cut him, Philadelphia general manager Howie Roseman made a call to former colleague and then–Browns CEO Joe Banner to see if he had any interest in acquiring Lewis. Both Banner and GM Mike Lombardi did, and for the low price of special teamer Emmanuel Acho, Lewis was off to Cleveland.

The former Browns regime had taken Trent Richardson third overall in the 2012 draft, but by the time the team finished spring minicamp in 2013, it was obvious that Lewis was the offense’s most talented runner. “The best back on the team was Dion,” Lombardi says. “It wasn’t hard to see.” Before getting the chance to overtake Richardson (who was traded to Indianapolis that September) on the depth chart, though, Lewis broke his left leg in a preseason game against the Lions and was done for the year. The next February, when the Browns hit the reset button and fired Banner and Lombardi, Lewis again found himself lacking a champion within his organization. On August 30, 2014, Cleveland cut him loose.

A trying few months ensued. Lewis landed with the Colts in September, but was released a week later. Out of a job, he returned to his hometown of Albany, New York, to work with trainer Mike Grasso — and wait. Even as his NFL prospects dwindled, Grasso says Lewis’s faith never wavered.

“This is your future, this is your career — that was kind of his mindset,” Grasso says. “‘I’m built for this. This is what I’m meant to do.’”

By New Year’s Eve, Lewis had secured a pair of future contract offers from the two teams that had worked him out in the fall: the Giants and Patriots (where Lombardi happened to be employed). Growing up in New York, Lewis was a Giants fan, and the allure of playing for Big Blue was strong. Lewis, his agent JR Rickert, and longtime friend Jared Fortier spent hours weighing the benefits of each destination. “We really felt like he would fit in better with the Patriots system,” Rickert says. “We had talked about the comparisons to [former New England running back] Kevin Faulk. We had talked about how they find a role for guys. They define a clear role.” Eschewing a childhood dream for what he deemed to be the right fit, Lewis signed with the Patriots for the veteran’s minimum of $585,000.

By August, Lombardi says, the Pats knew they had found a bargain. Only the famously cagey franchise never communicated that to Lewis. When he didn’t dress for the final preseason game, he wasn’t sure what to think. It took until the week of the 2015 season opener against the Steelers for Lewis to fully realize what New England had in store. He called Rickert the night before the game, uncertain if what he’d gleaned from the week of practice could be real. “[He said], ‘Hey, I think I’m starting tomorrow against the Steelers,’” Rickert says. “And I was like, ‘You’re kidding me.’” Lewis carried 15 times for 69 yards and made four catches for 51 yards in a 28–21 win, the featured player in a huddle that included Gronk and Julian Edelman.

The instinct that he and Rickert shared nine months earlier paid dividends beyond anything they could have imagined. In seven 2015 games, Lewis tallied 234 rushing yards and 388 receiving yards, slicing up defenses and dodging tacklers like no other back in football. His breakout season was cut short after he tore the ACL in his left knee in a win over Washington, but not before he signed a two-year, $2.6 million extension. “Dion could have very easily said, ‘I’ll wait until the season ends; I’ll be an unrestricted free agent,’” Rickert says. “But he loved the situation there so much, he wanted to be there.”

Even after a setback caused him to miss the first nine games of this fall, Lewis’s role was all but assured. The Pats made him a focal point of their offense down the stretch before letting him loose in a whole new way in the divisional round against Houston. In 15 games with Lewis in the lineup, the Patriots haven’t lost. Finally, he’s found home.

To Lombardi, the key to properly evaluating Lewis involves getting past his height. “[Dion] is a short running back,” Lombardi says. “He’s not a little running back.” The distinction is that while Lewis is only 5-foot-8, he’s actually most effective running between the tackles. During his 2009 season at Pitt, when he broke Tony Dorsett’s Big East freshman rushing record, Lewis carried the ball 47 times in a single game against Cincinnati. He wasn’t a change-of-pace option. He was the pace.

Lewis, Blount, and James White (AP Images)
Lewis, Blount, and James White (AP Images)

“I think [his size] is the best attribute for him on the field because he’s small but he’s compact,” echoes Grasso. To some, that breakdown would seem counterintuitive, but Lewis’s elusiveness in tight spaces is made possible in part because there’s not much to hit. He’s sturdy enough to withstand a physical beating, yet shifty enough to use his stature to his advantage.

Lewis’s ability to both carry the rushing load and attack teams as a receiver makes him the perfect link between the two other members of the Pats backfield. He acts as a bridge between Blount and pass-catching option James White, allowing New England to use all three as a collective unit. When Lewis was injured, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels often alternated between deploying Blount in heavy sets — which take advantage of his sheer power, provide Tom Brady with devastating play-action throws, and prevent defenses from going to their sub-packages — and inserting White on obvious passing downs.

The Patriots become truly dangerous, though, with Lewis giving their formations a totally different feel. For example, New England can run the exact same plays it would for Blount while altering the way it threatens a defense. “[Dion] is certainly a different type of runner than LeGarrette [Blount] as an inside runner,” Belichick said at a press conference last week. “It’s the same plays, but it’s not really the same. You’ve got a guy carrying the ball — LeGarrette — that has his style of running. Dion has his style of running. It’s definitely not the same.”

Things only get trickier when McDaniels uses Lewis as a receiver out of traditional running sets. When Blount is in the game, the odds are that New England will run. When White is in, there’s a high likelihood of a pass. But when the Pats use Lewis, McDaniels relays a message to opposing defenses similar to one the Albanian guy sends Liam Neeson in Taken: “Good luck.”

Blount and White have been able to survive in New England because their skill sets couldn’t be more disparate. But the Patriots offense is able to thrive because Lewis can replicate either back on any given play.

Just as they did with Blount, the Patriots have provided a haven for Lewis and breathed life into a career that seemed like it had stalled. In return, he’s developed into a vital piece for what the team hopes is another Super Bowl run. Lewis and Blount represent two sides of the same coin, embraced for their odd shapes and distinctive skill sets. Lewis cashed in during last week’s drubbing of the Texans. It’s anyone’s guess who will be asked to step up Sunday against Pittsburgh.

Rickert got back to his home in Albany just in time for kickoff last Saturday. He watched Lewis find the end zone three times, the best game of his injury-riddled career. When Rickert got in touch with the man of the hour — shortly after he’d pried free from the gaggle of reporters — Lewis was disappointed in his effort: To him, his two fumbles far outweighed the three touchdowns.

After the game of his life, one that lifted New England two wins away from a title, Lewis was transfixed on what he can do better. For a guy still relatively new in town, he sounded like Belichick. He sounded like a Patriot.