Through the first quarter of the regular season, the New England Patriots struggled to consistently move the football on the ground — and early on during their Week 5 matchup against the Washington Redskins, it seemed like the story would remain unchanged: as a team, the Patriots had just seven rushing attempts in the first half while gaining a mere 19 yards. However, something started to click after the break.
When all was said and done, New England’s rushing attack had gained a combined 130 yards on 27 carries while also scoring a touchdown. Sony Michel did most of the heavy lifting, and delivered his best performance of the season after a mostly disappointing first four weeks: while the second-year man averaged just 2.8 yards per carry heading into Week 5’s game in Washington, he was able to gain 5.7 yards per run on Sunday.
Michel was handed the football 16 times for 91 yards and that one score, but he was not the only ball carrier to contribute. Receiving back James White, who also caught six passes for 46 yards, ran the football six times for an additional 26 yards. Brandon Bolden, meanwhile, served as the number three with Rex Burkhead out because of injury and registered five carries for 13 yards — all while also catching a 29-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
How come the Patriots’ running backs delivered their strongest performance of the season against the Redskins after a subpar start into the season? According to quarterback Tom Brady, the course of the game may have played a role in the improved execution New England enjoyed on the ground: “I think one thing that did help was that the play count got up there pretty high. We had quite a few plays by halftime.”
Indeed, the offense entered the locker rooms having run 41 offensive plays compared to Washington’s 26. The second half was more of the same for the world champions, who were therefore able to put pressure on their opponent by establishing a physical presence on the ground. Michel and company took advantage of the bigger holes, and helped the Patriots score touchdowns on three of their first four possessions in quarters three and four.
“Anytime you do that, you feel like you’re going to wear the other team out and those three-yard runs become six[-yard runs], and then finally you can break one. Sony broke a long one, and then the touchdown run. It was great to see — he ran hard, he ran his butt off,” said Brady, mentioning two plays in the third quarter that helped put the game out of reach: with the Patriots up 19-7, Michel first had a 25-yard carry before also scoring on a 14-yarder.
“Once we started the running game, get the ball moving, started getting into a rhythm, things started opening up. [...] I think we wore them down,” said wide receiver Josh Gordon after the game when discussing New England’s rejuvenated ground attack against Washington. “In the second half we knew we needed to start the running game, get the guys going in the running game and it would open up everything else.”
“The game’s easy when you run the ball: the routes seem easier, everybody is less tired, morale’s high — we’re just happy and excited — O-line is pushing down field, running backs are running hard. It’s good, old-fashioned football. If you’re a fan of the game, you just love to see it,” added the 28-year-old. “We kept the pace up, kept the tempo going, and then Sony, James, Brandon... collectively their effort was great.”
This effort in combination with some solid run blocking by the offensive line, fullback Jakob Johnson, and the tight ends allowed the Patriots to take full control of the game in the second half. And while New England’s offense has not always performed well over the last few weeks and also had its fair share of issues on Sunday, the 33-7 victory in Washington appeared to be a look like a step in the right direction — at least as far as the ground game is concerned.