PITTSBURGH -- New England Patriots running back Rex Burkhead’s knee injury might keep him out of action in the coming weeks, but because it is not of the “major variety,” according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, he could still return this year.
That’s good news for the Patriots, as Burkhead is a dual threat who also is part of the kickoff coverage and punt rush/return teams.
In the meantime, the injury might open the door for the return of Mike Gillislee to the 46-man game-day roster. Gillislee has been inactive for each of the last six games -- five as a healthy scratch and one because of illness (he likely would have been inactive regardless).
The trickle-down effect of Burkhead leaving Sunday’s win over the Steelers early in the third quarter was seen with Dion Lewis’ snap count rising. Lewis finished with 33 snaps, which was a season-high.
The Patriots will likely want to reduce that, which could lead Gillislee back to the game-day roster. That potential dynamic leads off this week’s snap-count analysis:
Dion Lewis: 33
James White: 20
Rex Burkhead: 16
White might also show up on the injury report this week as he left the game in the first half for evaluation after coming up limping a bit after a reception. But he played through it. The Patriots ran 10 plays with two running backs on the field at the same time, as the “pony” grouping has become a bigger part of Josh McDaniels’ plan in recent weeks.
Brandin Cooks: 57
Danny Amendola: 37
Phillip Dorsett: 25
Kenny Britt: 2
On Britt’s first snap, he ran an out and caught a 7-yard pass from Tom Brady. His second snap came close to the goal line (incomplete pass to Rob Gronkowski from the 4-yard line). After the game, Britt said, "Just walking out there pregame, it was just something amazing." Slater was integrated into the mix on running plays, as he brings a physical blocking approach with his special-teams background. Slater has played just 11 offensive snaps this year. Cooks is at 92.9 percent playing time this year.
Rob Gronkowski: 60
Dwayne Allen: 26
On Lewis’ game-winning touchdown run, Allen and Gronkowski delivered punishing blocks to clear the path. The Steelers were matching the Patriots’ two-TE package with a nickel defense (similar approach to the Bills on Dec. 3) and the Patriots ran against it with consistent success (17 carries for 79 yards not including kneel-downs).
James Develin: 18
A dropped pass was one play the AFC Pro Bowl candidate would like to have back.
LT Nate Solder: 60
LG Joe Thuney: 60
C David Andrews: 60
RG: Shaq Mason: 60
RT Cameron Fleming: 46
RT LaAdrian Waddle: 14
Waddle came on for Fleming late in the first half in what might have been a planned rotation, before Fleming returned. Thuney and Fleming gave up sacks.
Tom Brady: 60
The total was his second fewest of the season (57, vs. Oakland). The low total of snaps was a result of the Patriots’ defense struggling to get off the field, leading to a lopsided time of possession in favor of the Steelers (35:07 to 24:53)
Trey Flowers: 64
Eric Lee: 44
Deatrich Wise Jr. 32
Flowers totaled five tackles and had a half-sack, with three quarterback hits in his return to action after missing two games (ribs). Lee drew a hold on right guard David DeCastro on the opening drive that helped contribute to stopping the Steelers and getting the Patriots off to a quick start.
Malcom Brown: 53
Lawrence Guy: 49
Adam Butler: 19
Without Alan Branch (knee injury), the Patriots leaned heavily on Brown (second-highest snap total of season) and Guy (third highest) to hold up at the line of scrimmage. While Le’Veon Bell was productive (24 carries, 117 yards, TD), the Patriots provided the resistance when they needed it most.
Elandon Roberts: 53
David Harris: 31
Harris’ return after missing last week meant fewer snaps for Flowers, who had played a season-high 51 the week before in Miami. This group misses Kyle Van Noy, who was out for the second straight game with a calf injury.
Devin McCourty: 67
Patrick Chung: 67
Duron Harmon: 28
Jordan Richards: 14
The Patriots played more of a traditional nickel package, which meant less work for Harmon, who plays more in the “big nickel” grouping as the third safety. His 28 snaps were his second fewest of the season.
Stephon Gilmore: 67
Malcolm Butler: 67
Eric Rowe: 54
Rowe was elevated to the No. 3 role over Jones, which was a flip-flop from the prior week when Jones played 40 snaps and Rowe just 13. Rowe had some struggles until the end of the game when he made the big play to deflect Ben Roethlisberger