The New England Patriots haven’t lost three straight games since 2002. At 1-2 and facing an undefeated Miami Dolphins, it looked like Week 4 could serve up a historic defeat for Bill Belichick’s team. But then a 2018 addition spiced up Josh McDaniels’ offense and kept the Pats’ streak of non-streaks alive — but that new face wasn’t Josh Gordon.
Instead, New England was paced by first-round pick Sony Michel, who generated the biggest performance of his budding career with a 25-carry, 112-yard showcase in a 38-7 win. His running served as the spark that rejuvenated an attack that had been hamstrung in losses to the Jaguars and Lions and took pressure from the shoulders of a beleaguered receiving corps. The Pats’ 449 yards of offense and six yards per play were both season highs.
But was Michel’s breakout performance in Week 4 a function of a young back reaching his potential after missing chunks of the preseason? Or did the rookie simply take advantage of a Miami defensive front that got bullied up front and left gaps across the line of scrimmage?
Turns out, Sunday’s performance was a little of both.
The Dolphins gave Michel space to build momentum, then the rookie took over
Michel started his game by getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage on a run to the left side, giving off the impression Sunday would be another uneven day for the first-year player. Then he took his next three carries a combined 36 yards, showing off not only the potential that made him New England’s first first-round tailback since Laurence Maroney, but also the glaring run-stopping deficiencies the Dolphins face along their defensive line.
On those three rushes, his first contact from a Miami defender came four, 12, and 10 yards downfield, respectively. The Dolphins got beat up in the trenches, and Michel was quick to snap up the yards his offensive line left in their wake.
It didn’t stop there. The first touchdown of his NFL career saw him take a pitch at the Miami 10-yard line, then run completely untouched into the end zone.
This was at least somewhat surprising. The Dolphins came into Sunday’s game in Foxborough allowing just 3.3 yards per rush — third-best in the league. But that group had also significantly overachieved.
Miami’s 3-0 start came against struggling rushing offenses like the Titans and Jets. Pro Football Focus rated it the worst run defense in the league in the run-up to 2018. Last week, the Dolphins’ top rated run defender from 2017 tore his ACL in an effort to avoid a roughing the passer penalty.
But outside of the Dolphins’ struggle to remember the days when their defensive line could rely on William Hayes and Ndamukong Suh to maintain their space and absorb multiple blockers came some extremely promising development from the Patriots’ running game. Michel’s big gains only worked because of his ability to identify holes and the athleticism and explosiveness to charge through them. And when his first options were cut off, he used fast-twitch lateral movement to find second and third options:
And while at 5’11 and 215 pounds, he’s not going to remind anyone of LeGarrette Blount’s salad days in New England, his explosive lower-leg drive helped him churn through contact and consistently fall forward for extra yards (ignore the three (!) different Patriot flags on this negated 12-yard run):
That gives the Patriots a useful inside-outside runner who can serve as the team’s carries sponge — though Bill Belichick’s committee approach almost certainly means his days with 25 carries will be few and far between after Week 4. He’s still got work to do as a short-yardage back, however. Michel was given the ball seven times in short-yardage situations Sunday (fewer than three yards to go), converting only three of his attempts. In his first two games against the Jaguars and Lions, he was successful in four of eight opportunities.
Still, that’s a job above Michel’s pay scale for 2018. New England originally envisioned many of those carries going to 230-pound Jeremy Hill before a torn ACL ended his season after a single game.
Michel’s emergence could pace New England’s new-look offense
Things are changing in Foxborough. Josh Gordon is adjusting to the Pats’ complicated offense (two catches for 32 yards on two targets in 18 snaps Sunday). Julian Edelman is due to return from the four-game PED suspension that cost him the start of his comeback campaign. Getting those two at anything nearing full strength will give New England a deep threat and a dangerous-anywhere combination that will prevent defenses from double- and triple-teaming Rob Gronkowski.
But the best remedy for reducing the pressure on an overtaxed offense may have a player who’d been on the active roster each of the past three weeks. Michel showed flashes of potential in his first two games as a pro, but typically underwhelmed in a two-game stretch where he just looked like another cog in Belichick’s running back machine (24 carries, 84 yards).
On Sunday, he was one of the best players on the field and the yard-churning threat New England needed to open the throttle and push its offense to the limit. If he can sustain that kind of performance — or even just something close to it — he’ll be able to put the Patriots early-season struggles in their rear view.