It may be sagging a bit, but the sky isn’t falling in Foxborough.
Collecting back-to-back double digit losses for the first time since a forgettable 2002 season certainly stings a bit — and it should. Tallying just 209 yards and 10 points on 47 plays against a Detroit defense — a unit that, in the previous two weeks, allowed a combined 78 points to the Jets and 49ers, and was without its best pass rusher on Sunday — fails to inspire even a modicum of confidence.
There is no shortage of deserved criticism that could (and will) be doled out following a debacle like Sunday night’s performance at Ford Field. The Patriots were thoroughly lambasted in the trenches on both sides of the football, the oft-chastised wide receiver group lived up to its lackluster billing, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels — clearly hampered by a combination of the first two — resorted to a conservative, timid plan of attack.
One place where blame should not be placed, however, is with first round pick Sony Michel. When discarding Tom Brady’s quick two-yard first down plunge on New England's first drive of the third quarter, Michel was handed the football on each of the team’s 14 scheduled run plays until their final drive, where James White received four carries while the clock was being extinguished. The former Georgia Bulldog accumulated just 50 yards on the ground, and he corralled just one of his two catchable targets for a loss of a yard while dropping the other to set up a third-and-long situation on a critical third quarter drive.
Given that Sunday night’s contest was essentially Michel’s second “preseason” game after the rookie went under the knife in the first week of August to relieve some swelling in a knee, it should come as no surprise that McDaniels has been intent on keeping things extremely simple for him. But that simplicity is coming at the behest of making any attempt to disguise what the offense is running.
Of Michel’s 33 snaps (36 before penalties) over the first two weeks, he was handed the football on the ground 23 times and targeted in the passing game five times. That’s an 85% touch rate. What’s even more peculiar is the fact that, of those 33 plays, just one was run out of 11-personnel (one RB, one TE, three WRs), meaning the rookie is having to learn and adapt to NFL game speed with limited space to operate as the Patriots’ 12, 21, and 22-personnel packages and formations continue drawing stacked-box after stacked-box.
Here’s the breakdown of the packages the Patriots have used with Sony Michel on the field, and their corresponding yardage per play:
21-personnel (w/ James Develin): 13 plays (39.39% of Michel’s snaps) — 4.0 yards per play
12-personnel: 11 plays — 33% of Michel’s snaps — 3.64 yards per play
22-personnel (w/ James Develin): 5 plays — 15.15% of Michel’s snaps — 1.6 yards per play
13-personnel: 2 plays — 6.06% of Michel’s snaps — 3.5 yards per play
11-personnel: 1 play — 3.03% of Michel’s snaps — 3 yards
21-personnel (w/ two RBs): 1 play — 3.03% of Michel’s snaps — -1 yard
Why McDaniels would be telegraphing the offense’s intentions with such regularity? It very well could be that, given the lack of dynamic outside personnel, and coupled with a continually nicked-up Rex Burkhead, the Patriots see no reason to take the “training wheels” off their rookie ball carrier until the offense has a chance to develop further — a process that is now seemingly reliant on the performances of new addition Josh Gordon a veteran Julian Edelman.
Where Michel garnered the most unwarranted criticism on Sunday evening was in the short yardage department. Down by two scores in the second quarter, the offense had two drives stall on third-and-one carries that yielded a total loss of three yards, forcing a punt and a field goal try from just inside the red zone.
The first run stuff, courtesy of former Patriot Ricky Jean Francois:
2Q, 3rd and 1: Ricky Jean Francois absolutely flexes on newly-extended guard Shaq Mason. Re-routes the paths of Develin and Michel and cleans up on the backside after Devon Kennard forces Michel to cut back in. pic.twitter.com/PK9FM14SY2— Brian Phillips (@BPhillips_SB) September 24, 2018
The second run stuff on third and one came after a three-yard run by Michel that could’ve developed further, but Dwayne Allen failed to lay a finger on his assignment, Tavon Wilson, and the offense was forced into a third down. The Patriots immediately hurried to the line and snapped it again, this time running off tackle right:
When you have the 9th highest cap hit on the team, and you're a TE whose only job is to block, you can NOT allow Tavon Wilson to do this to you on 3rd and 1 in the red zone. pic.twitter.com/KZ7VVlf33B— Brian Phillips (@BPhillips_SB) September 24, 2018
Tough to fault the running back, or the play call, when all that needs to happen for a first down to be gained is for Dwayne Allen to not get completely worked over by a safety he outweighs by roughly 50 pounds. Credit also needs to be given to Matt Patricia’s defense, as they were completely prepared for a hurry up maneuver than the Patriots have been catching teams flat-footed with for years.
Although Sony Michel is being tasked with (and should continue to be) filling much of the void left behind by Dion Lewis, there should not be any confusion about how different his style and skill set is. It’s also important to take into account just how much information Michel is having to process and react to at the moment. There are few places where the term “life comes at you fast” is more applicable than in the NFL, and when considering the aforementioned context, Michel is appears to be right on track in the progress department.
The key aspect to monitor with rookies early on who are assimilating to the chaos of the NFL game is whether or not they are carrying over the positive traits from college that got them drafted. For Sony Michel, according to NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein, a few of those traits include:
- Flashing acceleration to climb past linebackers and onto safeties quickly
- Has good burst after cuts
- Understands the art of setting up lead blockers and pulling guards
- Decisive runner who rarely takes unnecessary losses by trying to be the hero
- Excellent in blitz pickup
From the small sample size we’ve seen from Michel so far, he has flashed signs of most of these traits.
Not a fan of the way the #Patriots have utilized him so far this season, but Sony Michel is actually #good, you guys. His hips react so fluidly to manipulations in his footwork. You can tell the instincts are there.— Brian Phillips (@BPhillips_SB) September 24, 2018
This play went for 9 yards. pic.twitter.com/JBAsnc89UL
Of course, there are certainly areas where a learning curve has presented itself — particularly in the passing game. According to Zierlein, the rookie was “serviceable as pass catcher, but (had) issues catching it cleanly” at Georgia.
With so much happening early on in Michel’s transition to the NFL, and him having missed out on so much critical time in camp that could’ve led to an increased chemistry with Tom Brady and other offensive personnel, it’s understandable that his performance out of the backfield in the passing attack has been the slowest component to develop. But given the fact that he caught 64 passes for 621 yards and six touchdowns during his four years in Athens,GA, there’s no doubt that skill set is there.
The Patriots will (if they haven’t already) swiftly move past Sunday night’s objectionable display. As their process of continual roster development and schematic refinement rolls onward through the final days of September and into the season’s defining stretch, it’s clear that when it comes to rookie Sony Michel and his future role as a dynamic play maker in their attack, they’ve really just scratched the surface.