Patriots: Can New England trust the running game?

The Patriots have an overloaded backfield in 2020, but can we trust it?

A great quarterback can take you to great heights. Patriots legend Tom Brady proved that in New England for years. For the most part, Brady didn’t need a premier running game to find that success, but he’s Tom Brady and everyone else is everyone else. Hall of Fame quarterbacks, like Kurt Warner, benefited from a strong running game taking attention off them. Needing to respect the run keeps linebackers frozen and slows pass rushers.

Cam Newton is going to need help in the running game in his first season with the Patriots, as immense pressure gets lowered upon his shoulders. So … will he get it?

It’s a fair question. There are question marks on the offensive line, especially regarding depth and experience. To add to that, Sony Michel slumped as a sophomore.

Michel’s production took a steep drop in 2019. He dropped from 4.5 yards per attempt as a rookie to 3.7. Despite getting 38 more carries in 2019 than 2018, he had 19 fewer yards over the course of the season.

It’s clear that Bill Belichick recently saw this as a concern, as he brought in Lamar Miller just a couple of weeks ago, who immediately found himself on the PUP list alongside Michel. They’re both off that list now, but you can’t afford extra injuries during a pandemic like this, because you never know when a particular player could be lost due to illness.

That anxiousness about depth may be why Belichick brought in a running back coming off a torn ACL, who was arguably on the downside of his career before the injury.

Besides Michel and Miller, there are four running backs on the roster. James White, who is still a great receiving option, has never been used much as a runner. In fact, he’s never gained more than 425 yards in a season on the ground.

To go along with White, the Patriots still have Rex Burkhead. Burkhead has been around for a few seasons now, and is a very capable back. He’s not, however, sparking fear in defenses. Then, there’s JJ Taylor, an extremely undersized scat back, who has been compared to Dion Lewis. Comparisons are nice, but Taylor is an unproven rookie and there’s no proof of concept there. Finally, there is Damien Harris, who had a quiet rookie season, but does seem to be getting more reps this offseason.

That’s not a lot to be truly excited about in the backfield. It’s a backfield that requires Miller to be healthy and Michel to return to form. It requires Burkhead to handle more carries, and hope that the by-committee approach doesn’t make play calling predictable, which it has in the past. It’s a backfield that requires a healthy offensive line, which lacks depth behind the starters, during a pandemic.

All of that is enough to make you nervous about the running game.

Now, it’s important to remember that a key part of Newton’s style of play is his ability to run the ball from the quarterback position. This has been a blessing and a curse. He forces the defense to game plan for an extra dynamic, but has also suffered a growing string of injuries because of this. New England can’t afford to lose Newton, because as time goes on, Jarrett Stidham is becoming less and less viable at quarterback.

If Newton can stay healthy, his ability to run the football could cover up a number of deficiencies here. However, that’s a huge “if” at this point. You need him healthy and throwing the football, first and foremost.

So, reality is you know you can’t lean on Newton as a runner. You need the offensive line healthy. You need every single running back to be better last year than this year. There’s plenty of reason to be anxious about the Patriots’ running game.