|Back at back: Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez has run the ball before||01.15.12 at 10:51 pm ET|
One of the relatively new offensive wrinkles we saw from the Patriots on Saturday night against the Broncos was the use of tight end Aaron Hernandez as a running back.
Hernandez was able to give the New England offense a jumpstart with a 43-yard carry around left end that set up the Patriots’ first touchdown of the game, and he would end up with 61 yards on five carries.
“We didn’t have any backs in the game in that personnel grouping — we just had three receivers and the two tight ends,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of the 43-yard pickup by Hernandez, the longest run of the game for either team.
“That’s not something we’ve done a lot of. You see all those receivers on the field and you’re not really thinking too much about the running game defensively, so we tried to pop a couple runs in there just to keep them honest.
“We thought they might be thinking — I mean, obviously they’re thinking pass — we threw the ball most every time, but we tried to get a couple runs going there and Aaron made a good run. It looked like he broke a tackle and he did a nice job handling the ball there.”
The 6-foot-1, 245-pound Hernandez, who also had four catches for 55 yards and a touchdown, has been used as a chess piece before by Belichick and the Patriots. He’s one of the most versatile pass catchers in New England history, as he’s lined up flush against the tackle in the traditional tight end spot, in the slot or split wide like a receiver. This season, the 22-year-old had 79 catches for 910 yards and seven touchdowns. The Patriots have used him in the backfield on occasion (they’ve showed that look frequently in training camp practices the last two years), but never to the extent that he was utilized on Saturday night.
While Saturday’s move caught some people by surprise, Bob DeSantis wasn’t shocked. Back when Hernandez was back at Bristol (Conn.) Central, the longtime athletic coordinator at the school said Hernandez did “everything except sell popcorn.”
“Running back, wide receiver, defensive end. Wherever,” DeSantis said of Hernandez, who ran the ball once as a collegian at Florida. “As a running back, Aaron fought for every yard when he was carrying the ball. You can’t really teach the moves he made, and continues to make, as an offensive player, but he had great instincts as a running back. He would always go north to south. No dancing. You saw that Saturday night.
“He’s smart, but he’s also got a lot of natural ability as a running back. He has elements in his game that you just cannot teach. He ran the ball quite a bit for us.”
Hernandez suffered a helmet-to-helmet collision late in the game on a sequence at the goal line, and was quickly removed from the contest. (He could be seen on the sidelines getting checked out for a concussion.) After the game, he said he felt “great,” but it’s certainly a situation that bears watching as New England prepares for the AFC Championship this weekend at home against the Ravens.
It also brings another layer of versatility to a dynamic offense, already one of the best in the game, as the postseason rolls on.
“I think that run on Saturday night really set the tone for the entire game. The offensive energy just picked right up after he ripped off that run,” DeSantis said. “And Belichick, what a great move. I mean, who expected him to come out as a halfback?
“I did get nervous when I saw him get hit there late in the game … I said ‘Oh, my God.’ But he bounced up and from what I hear, he’s already OK. He seemed pretty good from what I saw after the game.”
DeSantis has been close with the Hernandez family for many years, and it’s hard for him to put into words what sight of Aaron’s continued athletic success means to him.
“To see a kid have the success that he’s had … I work with his uncle at the high school, and to see someone who grew up as you were watching, to become an athlete like that and have the success that he’s had, there’s a pride there I can’t put into words. It was awe and joy and happiness. It was just great.”
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