Dion Lewis proving to be 'weapon' in Patriots backfield

It started with a simple text to a lifelong 40-something Patriots fan heading into another Super Bowl week: Given that New England has been to eight Super Bowls this millennium, is covered exhaustively by a fervent local media and ad nauseam nationally, what possible storyline haven't you read enough about?

After a lengthy reply extolling Steve Grogan as the face of the franchise before it became the greatest in NFL history, and his famous neck roll, this particular Sully had one salient comment: Dion Lewis doesn't get the coverage he deserves.

Noted.

In the craze of Monday's Super Bowl LII Opening Night hoopla, Dion Lewis milled around among swaths of media, a face mostly lost in the maneuvering bodies. The New England Patriots' starting running back, who led the team in carries and rushing yards -- running for 513 yards more than the next closest back on the team -- and scored more touchdowns than any other Pats position player, wasn't granted a podium. It was the latest instance of overlooking a back whose journey to a featured role has been wrought with obstacles.

"Weapon," former Patriots great and current NFL Network analyst Willie McGinest shouted while passing Lewis during a scrum. "This is the weapon. New nickname. Dion Lewis, The Weapon."

How Lewis became that weapon is a lesson in perseverance.

The 5-foot-8 pint-sized back out of Pittsburgh was selected in the fifth round of the 2011 draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. Stuck third in line for carries behind LeSean McCoy, Lewis averaged fewer than two carries a game in two years in Philly.

Traded to the Cleveland Browns in 2013 for linebacker Emmanuel Acho, disaster struck for Lewis when he fractured a fibula and missed the season. The Browns cut Lewis. He signed with Indianapolis for seven days in 2014 before being released again.

Lewis sat out the entire 2014 season. Most questioned whether he could regain the shiftiness and speed.

Then fortune turned for the running back. He signed a future/reserve contract with the Patriots on Dec. 31, 2014.

"I just looked at it as an opportunity to make a team, and I was going to do whatever it takes to make sure I was able to do that," Lewis said Monday of becoming a Patriot.

Out of the gate in 2015, Lewis looked like another stroke of brilliance from the New England front office. In the first start of his career in Week 1, Lewis burst out as a dual-threat nightmare, compiling 120 scrimmage yards in a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Less than a month later, the Patriots gave Lewis a two-year contract extension through 2017. Then the injury woes struck again. Lewis tore his ACL in Week 9.

The knee tear kept Lewis out a full year, and he wasn't quite the same dynamic back as the Patriots mostly rode LeGarrette Blount and James White to a Super Bowl LI victory.

Lewis began 2017 as a reserve back, behind White, and new acquisitions Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead. In the first four weeks of the season, Lewis never touched the ball more than five times in any game. Then, as the Patriots' offense got rolling, it leaned more heavily on Lewis. The dynamic runner earned 14 carries per game over the rest of the regular season and finished with a 5.0 yards-per-carry average, leading the NFL.

The Patriots found their workhorse.

Despite his small stature, Lewis isn't merely a scat back, relegated to outside runs and third-down tosses. He brings power between the tackles, a keen ability to sneak through creases and speed on the second level.

"I just run hard, I can make people miss, and I can get the tough yards as well," he said when asked what type of back he is.

Lewis certainly can make people miss. Pro Football Focus gave the Pats' back their No. 1 Elusive Rating for 2017. Lewis ranked behind only Kareem Hunt in rate of missed tackles caused per touch (18.8 percent). Below is a list of most yards after contact per attempt for the 2017 season:

LeGarrette Blount: 3.56
Derrick Henry: 3.23
Dion Lewis: 3.17
Marshawn Lynch: 3.09
Mark Ingram: 3.09

One of those backs is not built like the others.

A quintessential Lewis run came in Week 13 versus the Buffalo Bills, midway through the second quarter of a still tight game. The back burst through a wide hole to the second level. There he shed the tackle attempts of two linebackers, darting into the secondary. Lewis displayed his toughness, powerfully stiff-arming safety Jordan Poyer to the ground in a move that would make Steve Smith Sr. smirk. It took two more Bills defenders to shove him out of bounds after a 44-yard gain.

It's that type of speed and power combo that thrust Lewis into a featured role, and has the Philadelphia Eagles aware they must slow down the back Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Eagles defensive lineman Vinny Curry was teammates with Lewis in Philly for two years and said he recalled the running back's elusiveness on display during practices all those years ago.

"He was shifty. Real shifty back," Curry said. "He was good. Just to see him getting his just due, hat goes off to him, couldn't be more happy for him. He's shifty, he can catch the ball out of the backfield, and he can execute and he doesn't turn the ball over."

Lewis' size and power combo are what makes him especially tricky for linebackers trying to corral the back.

"I hate going against small backs because you can lose them behind the big linemen," Eagles linebacker Dannell Ellerbe said.

All the talk leading up to Super Bowl Sunday will focus on Tom Brady. With the Eagles' top-ranked run defense facing a flock of smaller Patriots running backs, it's taken as fait accompli that New England's ground game will be slowed.

"At the end of the day, as long as we fit our defense up and get to the ball like we know we can and cause disruption and chaos, we're going to be all right against the run," Ellerbe said. "We played the run well all year, so we're not worried about the run."

Counting out Lewis and the Pats' stable of Swiss Army Knife backs would be a mistake for Philly.

Lewis heads into free agency this offseason, and while he wouldn't discuss the future, the running back believes he's proven he can be a featured back.

"Of course," he said. "I think I've showed them what I can do, but just whatever coach asks me to do this week is what I'm going to do, but I definitely think I can be a featured guy, of course."

Stealing the show in the Super Bowl would certainly put a stamp on Lewis' latest comeback. As we saw with White last February, Patriots running backs will play a pivotal role in the battle for the Lombardi Trophy.

"Running backs are a huge part of the offensive success," Lewis said. "So you've got a running back who can do multiple things to help the offense, that's definitely a good thing. We've seen that last year with James, the way the critical plays he made down the stretch last year to help our team win [the Super Bowl]."

The Weapon heads into Super Bowl LII with his eye on being that hero this time around, even if few outside of New England are paying close attention.