While the New England Patriots have looked impressive on defense and in the passing game, Sony Michel and the run game have disappointed so far.
Much has gone right for the New England Patriots as they’ve raced out to a 3-0 mark on the season so far. Tom Brady and the passing game haven’t missed a beat despite the quarterback’s advancing age, the defense hasn’t allowed a touchdown since last January, and it appears at least for now like all the Antonio Brown distractions and hoopla didn’t make a serious dent on the team’s chemistry or identity.
One notable area of weakness for the Pats has definitely emerged over these past three weeks, though, and it’s the run game.
While second-year player Sony Michel has two touchdowns in his first three games, he’s only averaging 2.4 yards per rush. Considered a home-run threat as a college player back at Georgia, Michel’s longest run this year went for just 12 yards. Even last year as a rookie, his longest run was only 34 yards.
Much has been made about Michel’s lack of versatility in the run game. He reportedly concentrated on improving as a pass-catcher this summer in the hopes of getting more involved that way this season, but so far he’s only been targeted once by Brady – and he didn’t catch the ball.
Whereas opposing defenses are forced to respect the threat of Rex Burkhead, James White, or even Brandon Bolden catching the ball in addition to running with it, there’s just not enough evidence yet to force them to do the same with Michel. As a result, defenses are stacking the box every time he steps onto the field, and it’s making life much harder for him in the process.
To be fair, the New England offensive line hasn’t done Michel many favors either with their subpar run-blocking so far. Losing fullback James Develin to IR also dealt Michel a significant blow in the run game, as Develin was used frequently last season (especially in the playoffs) as a lead blocker for Michel on designed run plays.
At least to his credit, Michel appears to recognize he needs to step up his game significantly if the Patriots’ run game is to improve while he’s on the field:
“I just take accountability and try to do my job the best I can,” Michel told reporters, via NESN’s Zack Cox. “It’s not always going to be blocked perfect. Sometimes, the running back’s job is to make guys miss, and I have to make guys miss.”
His head coach, Bill Belichick, had a similar answer when asked to discuss the lackluster state of the Pats’ rushing attack and Michel’s struggles this year:
"“I think he’s had opportunities, and he’s done pretty well with those. There’s been times where he hasn’t been able to get started, and that’s always a problem with the running game. If you can’t get them through the line of scrimmage, you can gain some yards, but it’s hard. There are things he can do better. Certainly, we can block better and coach better so we’ll try to do those and improve in every part of our offense — not just the running game but play-actions and passing game and everything else.”"
Things probably won’t get any easier for Michel and the New England run game this Sunday. The Patriots are set to visit the 3-0 Buffalo Bills, who currently boast the league’s eighth-best run defense.