The New England Patriots’ offensive identity may not be clearly definable three weeks into the regular season, but that’s the way the unit seems to like it. After playing a ball-control game built on a strong rushing attack in Week 1 of the regular season, the team rather successfully took to the air in Week 2. Against the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday, the ground game was back to playing the central role on this side of the ball.
Even with James White still out following the death of his father, and with Damien Harris remaining on injured reserve, the Patriots’ running backs had a field day versus the Raiders. Sony Michel gained 117 yards on just nine carries. Rex Burkhead scored all three of his team’s offensive touchdowns while gaining 98 yards on 13 touches. Undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor had 43 additional rushing yards on the 11 hand-offs he received.
Add contributions by other players — from quarterback Cam Newton to wide receivers N’Keal Harry and Isaiah Zuber — and you get a Patriots squad that gained 253 yards on the ground on just 35 attempts.
When asking those responsible for this output, however, they referred to just sticking to the plan.
Coaches say all the time in order to win games in this league to have to run the ball, stop the run, and make kicks. And that’s what we try to do,” said Sony Michel after the statistically most efficient performance of his career. “Our goal was to finish today. Finish every play, every run. Anytime the ball is in our hands, our goal was to finish plays as much as we can.”
The Patriots did just that by breaking numerous big plays on the ground. Michel himself had a 38-yard run in the third quarter, shortly thereafter followed by a career-best 48-yarder. Rex Burkhead, meanwhile, wiggled through the line on numerous occasions — including all three of his scores.
“It all starts with the guys up front, the offensive line did a tremendous job all day,” Burkhead said after the contest. “Just being physical from the get go, from the first drive, and of course Sony and J.J. doing great as well.”
New England relying on its running game to get the job done against the Raiders was not necessarily a surprise, despite the success of last week’s aerial attack. With Cam Newton running the show instead of free agency departee Tom Brady, after all, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has seemingly embraced the running game and Newton’s upside within it.
The former league MVP, meanwhile, seems to be pretty excited about the offense’ potential.
“We want to put defenses in fits, knowing that we have so many different ways to beat you,” said Newton after the game. “A plethora of different type of schemes, a plethora of different type of... We want to run down hill, we want to run on the edge, we want to throw it deep, it doesn’t matter. I think that’s been our biggest edge for the most part, just having the ability to attack the teams in many different ways and still be successful.”
Newton was not the only one who left the Patriots’ 36-20 victory with some positive thoughts on the offense, and the players who made it work.
“I thought the backs ran well, they made a lot of yards with their running — either breaking tackles, cutting back and avoiding guys in the secondary,” head coach Bill Belichick said. “We had a couple longer runs there. Rex and Sony, J.J, Cam had a good run for us there; the receivers ran well, N’Keal after the catch, Julian [Edelman]. Those guys all got what was there and some on their own with good running skills.
“Offensive line, we had some moving parts in there and shuffled things around this week, but generally speaking we got a handle on that. We didn’t have a lot of negative plays, we didn’t go backwards, and then when we had a chance to break a tackle or to get into the end zone, get into space, then the backs created some extra yardage on their own.”
The Patriots’ offense, just like the entire team, remains a work in progress. That said, against Las Vegas it again showed that it certainly is capable of putting consistent pressure on opposing defenses. It also showed that it can follow the goal that Sony Michel mentioned during his postgame presser: finishing every play and every run.