The possibilities are endless for an offense when you acquire a running back of Sony Michel’s caliber.
Michel can do it all. He can run from deep in the backfield in a traditional power look, he can run from shotgun, he can catch the ball out of the backfield, and he can pass protect.
However, what excites me the most about Michel’s fit in the Patriots offense is how well his running style fits into some of their favorite run-blocking schemes.
The Patriots have a few go-to running plays that rely on key pieces of their offense to make blocks on the move to create running lanes. These schemes will produce large holes for the explosive Michel to burst into the secondary.
Michel primarily ran behind zone blocking schemes at Georgia, and although the Patriots are a multi-dimensional team upfront, they usually implement man-blocking schemes in the run game.
Michel’s skill set can apply to either style, and you can easily see how his instant-acceleration, decisiveness, and elusiveness in the open field will translate nicely into any scheme.
Below, I’ll outline three of the Patriots’ favorite running plays and explain why Michel is a perfect fit in their scheme.
(Disclaimer: the blocking schemes that Georgia runs are slightly different than the plays you’ll see from the Patriots. The point is to illustrate Michel’s ability to run in a similar scheme.)
Let’s start with an old-school power concept that the Patriots run on a regular basis. The Pats typically run this scheme out of a strong I-formation with fullback James Develin in the backfield. Develin is the key on this play as he’s going to either lead through the hole on a counter play or kick-out the defensive end in a power-o scheme. The other key is either the front or back side guard. On a counter play, the front side guard is going to pull and execute a trap block at the point of attack, while Develin leads the way for the running back. On a power-o play, the backside guard is going to pull upfield while Develin kicks out the edge defender. On either play, the play-side tackle also releases upfield to block the linebacker, and the running back will hug that block through the hole.
As for Michel, the running back’s responsibility on the play is pretty simple: follow the lead blocker. The beauty of these types of schemes is that it allows the running back to get downhill without much resistance. The speedy Michel will be at full-speed in seconds, and with blockers getting up onto the linebackers at the next level of the defense, he’ll only have the secondary to beat. That’s when Michel’s elusiveness in the open field can pay dividends, and he’ll start to break off those explosive runs we saw at Georgia.
Another staple of the Patriots’ running game is the wham scheme, thanks to tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronk’s tackle-like skills as a run blocker allow the Patriots to use him on trap blocks and other kinds of lead blocks. Gronk is going to come in motion right before the snap towards the quarterback and the Patriots purposely leave either the nose, one-technique or three-technique defensive tackle unblocked initially on the play. This gives the illusion that it’s a busted run play, when in reality, Gronk is going to come around and block the unsuspecting defensive tackle. Gronk’s role in the play allows the play-side guard or tackle to immediately climb to the second level on a linebacker rather than blocking down on the defensive tackle.
The Patriots run variations of this play all the time, and the wham scheme is somewhere Sony Michel can shine. The wave of blocks typically caves in the center of the defensive line while also sucking in the force defender on the edge due to Gronk’s pre-snap motion. That leaves the running back a golden opportunity to press the hole and then cut on a dime to daylight, a one-cut action that will bode well for Michel. The play shown above features former Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount, a bruising running back that we don’t typically describe as explosive. Now imagine Michel’s ability to accelerate to daylight in this type of scheme.
Out of shotgun, the Patriots’ go-to running play is one-back power. One of the most intriguing elements of Michel’s game was his ability to run out of shotgun at Georgia. This will allow the Patriots to force defenses into their sub-packages only to have them run a power running scheme with an explosive running back in the backfield next to Tom Brady. In this scheme, the play-side guard and tackle execute a double-team inside, the tight end kicks out the defensive end and the backside guard pulls up through the hole.
Michel can use his incredible burst to push the ball to the second level or bounce the run to the outside for a massive gain. His ability to run out of shotgun will make the Patriots all kinds of unpredictable, especially when you factor in his receiving and pass-blocking skills.
In many ways, Sony Michel’s role in the Patriots offense will look a lot like Dion Lewis’ when the now Titans running back was healthy.
Michel can be used in a multitude of ways out of the backfield both as a runner and a receiver and will have no problems executing his role in the schemes outlined above.
The Patriots’ decision to not re-sign Dion Lewis made sense from a salary cap perspective. Michel will account for roughly $1.75 million against the cap in 2018 while Lewis will cost the Titans $5.75 million against the cap.
However, that doesn’t mean the Patriots wouldn’t have missed Dion Lewis on the field, and his team-leading 1,680 all-purpose yards and ten total touchdowns a year ago.
Lewis’ impact on the Patriots’ offense also went beyond his box score statistics.
When Lewis was on the field, the Patriots ran the football 48% of the time during the 2017 season, but that number dropped to 36% of the time when Rex Burkhead was in the backfield and all the way down to 14.6% when it was James White.
Burkhead and White’s usage last season suggests that the team views them primarily as receiving running backs, and reserve back Mike Gillislee is on the opposite end of the spectrum as only a runner, leaving Lewis as the only player that gave them the option to pass or run on any given play.
Just like Lewis, Michel will allow the Patriots to remain unpredictable to opposing defenses.