Dion Lewis has hit the ground running in his return to the NFL this season. (Kyle Terada/USA Today Sports)
FOXBORO — Dion Lewis is ready to show everybody he’s back for real.
In two games back, the running back who led the 2015 Patriots in yards from scrimmage before his ACL tear on Nov. 8, 2015, has eased his way back into the rhythm of the Patriots offense. Now with Rob Gronkowski out for the season following back surgery, it’s Lewis who might be called upon to finally get up to speed and pick up some of the slack.
Against San Francisco, he played 21 offensive snaps. Last week against the Jets, he played 23. Against the Niners, he carried the ball five times for 23 yards. In the passing game, he was targeted five times, caught three passes for 26 yards.
Last week, he carried the ball six times for 24 yards. He was targeted by Tom Brady seven times, catching four passes for 34 yards. Perhaps most telling is how Lewis has been used in the red zone. Inside the 20, he ran three times. He’s been targeted in the passing game in the red zone once each against San Francisco and the Jets.
“I think Dion has gotten better progressively each practice, each week,” Bill Belichick said. “Based on watching him practice for a couple weeks before we activated him, we felt comfortable playing him, and that’s part of his game, obviously, is his quickness, his change of direction, his acceleration. I think all of those things were evident. I think they’ve gotten better, but I think they were all evident when he returned to practice after the original – I’d say the initial break-in period.”
Lewis jokes about his 5-foot-8 stature and his ability to take the hits in the NFL game.
“I wouldn’t say survival. I would say survival for them,” Lewis joked this week. “Nah, I don’t mind getting hit but I’m not going to let somebody get me. If I can avoid getting hit, I’m definitely going to try and do that. I try to use my lower center of gravity to my advantage.”
Ironically, it wasn’t a hit that ended his 2015 season. He made a cut back to the inside on a run to the right edge against the Redskins in the first half. His left knee gave and he went down. A year later, he’s ready to finally pick up where he left off.
“If I didn’t think I was ready to go, I wouldn’t play in the game,” Lewis said. “If I didn’t think I can make anybody miss, I wouldn’t play in a game because that’s what I do and that’s how I protect myself so just a lot of hard work,” Lewis said. “Just happy to be back out there with my teammates. It was a tough road. But it made me, it didn’t break me. I stayed positive, kept working and knew that what I had to do was going to be tough but everybody can’t do it. If it was easy, everybody would do it and everybody can’t do it. I like to think of myself as a competitor and I like to go out there and try to make things happen and try to be the best player and person I can be.
“I feel good. I’m getting better every week, getting back in my rhythm. The past two weeks I’ve felt pretty good and trying to build on that. A little bit but I feel good when I’m out there so I just got to get used to playing football again. That’s pretty much the biggest part of it.”
Several times, the Patriots have also gone with a two-back look of Lewis and James White.
“It’s just a different look, gives the defense something to worry,” Lewis said. “Just trying to get matchups. We work great together.”
Against the Rams, Lewis will be facing someone on the other side of the line with whom he’s very familiar. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald was a freshman at Pitt when Lewis was a senior. Now Donald is considered one of the very best defensive linemen in the NFL.
“He’s an explosive player. He works really hard and we’re going to have to focus on him,” Lewis said. “He’s a great player. He was a freshman. Very explosive, very powerful, very quick. Not even that big, really, but he’s one of the best linemen in the league.”
Lewis admitted that it was difficult watching his teammates.
“Yeah, it’s tough watching, rooting for these guys every week as much as I can,” Lewis said. “It just made me want to work harder so I could get out there and help the team win. I just try to make the defender make the first move and I just react off what he does. Just stay patient and force his hand and then just react off what he does.”
Any other secrets to conditioning for Lewis?
“I’ve got a couple of secrets,” Lewis said. “Nah, I can’t tell you that. It won’t be a secret anymore.”