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Sony Michel could once again be the X-factor for the Patriots offense in the playoffs

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Related: Patriots will face an unpredictable Titans defense this week: ‘They’re going to spin the wheel on you’

Miami Dolphins v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The New England Patriots did not find their offensive rhythm until late during the regular season last year, but find it they eventually did when the unit turned to a smash mouth attack powered by its running game. Led by then-rookie Sony Michel, the Patriots gained 485 yards on the ground and scored nine touchdowns over the team’s three playoff games en route to a victory in Super Bowl 53. Michel, of course, played a key role in all of this.

Fast forward to the 2019-20 season. While the circumstances have changed quite a bit for the Patriots’ running game — gone are the outstanding blocking of starting offensive linemen David Andrews and Trent Brown, fullback James Develin, and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen — one thing remains true yet again: Sony Michel could very well end up being the X-factor for the Patriots in the postseason.

There are two main reasons for that, one being a bit more obvious than the other. That being said, let’s take a look at both of them:

1.) What the Patriots are really good at

For much of the regular season, New England’s run offense has struggled — offensive linemen could not sustain their blocks on a regular basis while the backs’ decision making and gap attack was too inconsistent to make up for it. Things have slowly but steadily changed over the second half of the season, however, and the Patriots are now entering the playoffs coming off three straight games of more than both 130 rushing yards and 4.0 yards per carry.

The impact the offensive line had on this development cannot be underestimated. The return of left tackle Isaiah Wynn off short-term injured reserve in combination with the generally improved health and chemistry of the entire starting unit helped the Patriots’ blocking turn the corner: what was once a liability for the offense is now one of its most consistent areas, and one that could play an enormous role in the postseason and how New England might approach it.

While Tom Brady and the passing offense have not been able to take advantage of this so far, the running game has. And it would therefore not be a surprise if the Patriots’ coaching staff used this as a foundation for how to move forward; it would, after all, be consistent with what offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said during last year’s Do Your Job documentary: “What are we really good at? What’s the most consistent part of our team offensively?”

Judging by the last three weeks of regular season play, the running game is just that with Michel being its number one guy. If the Patriots can ride him once again, and create openings up front, then they should be able to play the same football that helped them earn the Vince Lombardi Trophy in 2018: a clock-control style that limits the risk of turnovers and serves as a perfect complementary piece to the NFL’s best pass defense.

2.) How defenses play Sony Michel

As outlined above, Michel’s impact on the Patriots’ running game is pretty straight-forward. But he also can help the team’s passing offense finally find its groove, even though his usage as a pass catcher has been limited during the regular season: the second-year man was targeted just 19 times in 16 games this year, and came away with 12 receptions for 94 yards — all while also dropping four of the passes thrown his way.

As a receiver, Michel has essentially been a non-factor.

Defenses have noticed this as well and reacted accordingly by not paying much attention to him as a receiving threat this season. One number that illustrates this is the rate of eight-plus defenders in the box as charted by NFL Next Gen Stats: Michel faces loaded boxes on 33.6 percent of his snaps, ranking him seventh among qualifying running backs that have carried the football 85 or more times during the regular season.

While this does not mean teams are necessarily selling out to stop the run whenever they see Michel line up in the backfield, it is still an indication for how the second-year man and his role within New England’s offense are perceived around the league: Michel is primarily the Patriots’ early down ball-carrier, as opposed to rotational all-around/change-of-pace back Rex Burkhead and primary receiving/third down back James White.

This usage does put players in positions in which they are comfortable and have been productive in the past, but it also tips New England’s hand to a certain degree. Josh McDaniels can take advantage of this, however, and it is where Michel’s impact on the passing game comes in: the Patriots need to be able to consistently and successfully run play-action concepts with their early down back on the field.

The team’s opponent this week, the Tennessee Titans, is a prime example for this method of attack: Derrick Henry has not just gained a league-leading 1,540 yards on the ground during the regular season, he has also helped the Titans run one of the best play-action games in all of football — one that has quarterback Ryan Tannehill complete 76.7% of his pass attempts while averaging 13.5 yards per throw and being rated at 143.3.

Meanwhile, Henry is facing eight-plus man boxes at almost the same rate as Michel: teams are using extra defenders against the run on 35.3% of his offensive snaps, and the Titans have been willing to challenge them through the air when they do that. Sure, Henry and Michel cannot be compared in terms of output and role — the former is a true workhorse back, the latter a rotational piece — but defenses are still playing them in a similar manner.

However, Tennessee is more actively incorporating misdirection into its offensive attack compared to New England: while Tannehill has seen play-action calls on 29.9 percent of his drop-backs, Brady is only at 24.9 percent. The difference may not be overwhelming, but it still shows how the Patriots have some room for improvement — and their offensive personnel in combination with how defenses play against it certainly should give them opportunities, especially with Michel under center.

The 31st overall pick of the 2018 draft can therefore also have an impact on how New England attacks defenses through the air — something that has not worked well for the team for much of the regular season. This, in turn, could make him a true X-factor for the offense in the playoffs apart from his ability to generate momentum on the ground and help the Patriots control the tempo and rhythm of their postseason contests.

As the old saying goes: the more things change, the more they stay the same.