Tonight, the New England Patriots will have to go up against a Baltimore Ravens defense that has surrendered the second fewest rushing yards in the league so far this year (590), while also facing the fewest attempts on the ground (136). On a per-play average, the unit ranks 18th while giving up 4.3 yards on an average carry and 21st in Football OUtsiders’ DVOA statistic that evaluates plays based on the context in which they occur in (-4.5%).
That being said, the Ravens still appear to have an advantage in this area over the Patriots’ somewhat inconsistent offense. While New England ranks first in the NFL in scoring entering Week 9, the team has after all still had its fair share of up-and-down play on offense — especially when it comes to running the football: the Patriots have gained an average of 3.2 yards per rushing attempt over their first eight games, and rank only 20th in DVOA (-9.8%).
The majority of carries so far this season have gone to second-year back Sony Michel, so he is an easy culprit to identify when asking why New England has not been able to build on the success it had on the ground late during the 2018 season: in eight games this season, the former first-round draft pick has carried the football 140 times but gained only 464 yards for an average of 3.3 yards per carry while also scoring six touchdowns.
Ranked as the 29th best running back in the NFL this season by advanced analytics website Pro Football Focus (based on running backs to average more than 10 run play snaps per game), Michel has had a hard time getting going halfway through his sophomore campaign. According to the Patriots’ coaching staff, however, there is no cause for concern when it comes to the 31st overall draft choice last year and his development at this stage.
“I’m happy he’s doing a great job, he’s still pretty healthy, he’s playing well in my mind,” said running backs coach Ivan Fears earlier this week (transcript via the Boston Sports Journal). “He’s doing a lot of good things but like everybody he’s got his moments where he’s hurting us, he’s making a mistake too. He’s got to correct those mistakes, be a little bit more consistent in what he’s doing and I think we’ll be more productive overall.”
“I thought he tried to run hard [in Week 8], he was running the ball well. The good news for us is that Josh [McDaniels] is continuing to call the run game and giving us a chance, keeping us a little more balanced. You want to be more productive but at least we’re balanced right now and we need to keep that up,” the assistant coach continued. “Some of his decisions, he can’t take a chance and say I’m going to bounce this thing. He’s got to frigging get downhill. Nothing there? Get downhill, run into somebody and let’s go.”
As Fears noted, his decision-making in relation to getting downhill is something Michel still needs to improve upon. The numbers certainly support this point of view: while the 24-year-old is averaging 4.2 yards per carry when running downhill between the tackles through the A- and B-gaps, he is only gaining 2.5 yards per attempt when trying to get to the outside and either run to the perimeter or behind the offensive tackles.
Nevertheless, Bill Belichick is feeling good about Michel as well especially when it comes to his vision: “I think it’s improved a lot. Yeah, I think it’s improved a lot,” said the Patriots’ head coach during a press conference earlier this week before digging a bit deeper into how running backs need to see the field on a play-to-play basis, as the future Hall of Famer called it. “Look at the play, and we’ve gone over the reads, we’ve gone over how he read it.”
“You want to try to understand what a player sees, and there’s a lot to see,” added Belichick. “Some guys focus more on one thing than another, but we’ve talked to him a lot about what his keys are, what his reads are, what the progression of the reads are. You don’t just read one guy. After you get past that guy, or after you deal with that particular blocker, that particular defender, then there’s somebody else to deal with.”
“We’ve talked a lot about that, and I think he’s improved a lot,” he said. “But each play is a little bit different and each key is a little bit different, so it’s a little different than a pass play. Each pass play — guys don’t run the same route on every play, so the progression’s different and the spacing is different and so forth. But I think he’s done a good job of improving on that. He’s worked really hard at it, and I think the results have been very positive.”
While the numbers so far don’t look that way, it appears that both Belichick and Fears feel good about Michel’s progress this year and his outlook within the offense. The main issues at this point in time therefore appear to be his decision making and the blocking up front, particularly on the outside of the line. If those two improve — decision making could come with added experience, the blocking with the return of Isaiah Wynn — Michel could be in for another productive run.