Patriots Turn to Burkhead and the Run After Newton Falters Early

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Pro Football|Patriots Turn to Burkhead and the Run After Newton Falters Early

Patriots 36, Raiders 20

New England struggled to get its passing offense going against the Raiders but got timely dashes from running backs Rex Burkhead and Sony Michel.

Credit...John Cetrino/EPA, via Shutterstock

Bill Pennington

Sept. 27, 2020

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — In the New England Patriots’ opening two games this season, quarterback Cam Newton’s offensive dynamism fundamentally transformed the look of the franchise. Newton led the team in rushing each time, dashed for four touchdowns and once threw for nearly 400 yards.

But in the first quarter of the Patriots’ game against the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday, Newton, and the Patriots, struggled mightily. Worse, they were losing at home. On seven pass attempts, Newton had been sacked, thrown two incompletions and been harried into what Newton would later call an “inexcusable interception.”

The 2020 Patriots may be remade in many obvious ways from the organization’s Tom Brady era, but one constant remains ever-present: the ability to summon quick, sage in-game adjustments.

Following Newton’s turnover, New England’s veteran offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels instead turned to his team’s deep corps of running backs by calling passes in only five of the next 14 plays. Newton did not carry the football in that stretch. By midway through the second quarter, without Newton as the focus of the offense, the Patriots took a three-point lead.

New England (2-1) sprinted away with a multidimensional rushing attack that accumulated 250 yards to overwhelm the Raiders (2-1) in a 36-20 victory at Gillette Stadium. Rex Burkhead scored three touchdowns, two on the ground, and his backfield mate Sony Michel ran for 117 yards.

Newton, not surprisingly, was hardly the wallflower in the room, completing 17 of 28 passes for 162 yards and a touchdown while also scampering from the pocket for a key 21-yard gain. But even in just his third game with his new team, Newton knew a statement had been made about the remodeled Patriots.

“We want to put defenses in fits knowing that we have so many different ways to beat you,” Newton said. “And a plethora of different types of schemes. That’s been our biggest edge.”

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New England’s dominant running performance came at the end of an uneasy week of practice, a time when the offensive line had to be rebuilt because of an injury to a crucial starter. Moreover, running back James White, a team captain, missed his second game since the death of his father in a car accident in which his mother was also a passenger.

The Patriots were playing without starting center David Andrews, who is sidelined with a thumb injury. Pro Bowl left guard Joe Thuney took Andrews’s place and handled the snapping — and blocking — duties with aplomb. Other parts of the offensive line were rearranged as well, including considerable playing time for the rookie Justin Herron at tackle.

“The offensive line, we had some moving parts in there — shuffled things around a little bit,” Patriots Coach Bill Belichick said. But as a bottom-line guy, Belichick also had this observation on the true measure of an offensive line’s worth: “We didn’t go backward. We didn’t have a lot of negative plays. Then when we had a chance to break a tackle, the backs made a lot of yards on their own.”

Several of the Patriots said White was on their minds Sunday and that they were dedicating the victory to him.

“We just want to reward him and put him in good spirits,” Newton said. “And if he did watch the game, we’re excited like heck to hopefully get him back here soon. We’ve been praying for him.”

After the Patriots’ uneven start, two scores in the final minute of the first half brought some life to a what had been a desultory game. Continuing to mix a variety of running plays and short, precise passes, the Patriots put together a 12-play, 86-yard drive that had them ahead, 13-3, with 42 seconds left in the second quarter. The last play of the possession was a swing pass to Burkhead who eluded several Raiders with a powerful move upfield then dove over three defenders at the goal line for a touchdown.

Taking over at its own 39-yard line with 34 seconds remaining in the second quarter, Las Vegas charged down the field with the benefit of a 28-yard pass interference penalty. A 1-yard touchdown pass from Derek Carr to tight end Foster Moreau cut the Patriots’ lead to 13-10 with six seconds left in the half.

The Patriots’ first-half adjustments toward a more running-heavy attack were accelerated in the second half as New England confidently began to impose its will on the Raiders in the third quarter, pulling ahead 23-10 on a 5-yard spinning, diving touchdown run by Burkhead and a 32-yard field goal by Nick Folk. Both scores were set up by brilliant rushes by Michel, whose open-field running had the Raiders’ defensive backs out of position and chasing from behind repeatedly.

Newton also contributed the occasional run, though he mostly focused on handing off the football and throwing short passes to his backs and outside receivers.

For the Patriots, the level of competition will ramp up next week when they visit the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. As satisfying as Sunday’s victory was, Belichick was already looking ahead.

“We made progress every week and hopefully we continue to do that,” he said, adding: “The other teams continue to get better as well. We’ll have to improve in order to keep pace or try to catch up them.”

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