FOXBORO — The Patriots are hoping their running game moving forward without James Develin will look much better than it did without their fullback last weekend.
They averaged less than three yards per carry and very clearly had trouble generating any space for running backs to get started. One of Sony Michel's best runs of the day was a two-yarder where he was hit three yards behind the line of scrimmage. Not ideal.
It's expected that the Patriots will find a remedy to whatever it is ailing them in the running game, particularly with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia at the controls. But there's a lot of work for that pair -- arguably the best play-calling/line-coaching duo in professional football -- to take on.
Consider the following . . .
Teams aren't exactly loading up against the run when they play the Patriots and yet they're 27th in the NFL in average yards per attempt. Michel's carries have been particularly ineffective. He's averaging 2.4 yards per carry and just 1.7 yards after contact per carry. He's forced one missed tackle. And yet, according to Next Gen Stats, Michel is seeing eight defenders in the box on just 2.2 percent of his rushing attempts this season. (Bills back Frank Gore, meanwhile, sees eight defenders in the box on 54.6 percent of his attempts and averages 3.7 yards per carry.)
That the Patriots are having trouble generating push up front even when they aren't facing a significant numbers disadvantage in the box might be an indication that blockers simply aren't executing their assignments. It's putting them at a disadvantage in that opponents can dedicate resources in coverage — though that hasn't worked well for defenses with the Patriots scoring 106 points in three games — while still handling the running game.
NO ONE CULPRIT
If the Patriots had one soft spot in their rush attack, solving their issues might not be easy . . . but they'd be easier to pinpoint. Watching several of Michel's failed attempts last weekend against the Jets would shine a light on the fact that there are multiple fault lines leading to their shaky production.
At running back, offensive line, tight end, receiver — even quarterback, potentially — there were what looked to be guilty parties responsible for negative plays in the run game.
With 2:55 in the second quarter, the Patriots motion their biggest receiver Josh Gordon to an almost in-line position as though he's a tight end. Tom Brady handed to Michel, who then tried to rush off of Shaq Mason. But Mason was stood up, Michel got stuck behind, and the result was a one-yard gain.
With six seconds left in the first quarter, Brady motioned Julian Edelman from the slot on the right side of the formation to the left, leaving Phillip Dorsett (far right of the screen) to try to block slot corner Brian Poole. He had no shot, and Michel was stuffed for no gain.
On an outside zone run with just under 11 minutes left in the second quarter, Ryan Izzo couldn't hold his block on the edge and Michel was stopped for a loss of four.
In the third quarter, Gordon motioned in tight to the formation again as the Patriots tried to execute another zone run to the opposite side of the formation. Joe Thuney was driven into the backfield, giving Michel nowhere to go. There was, however, a clear lane for Michel to plant and attack upfield. You can see the opening in the image below. Michel did try to hit it, perhaps a beat late, and picked up two yards.
Belichick was asked how he's felt about Michel's performance thus far this season.
"I think he's had opportunities and he's done pretty well with those," Belichick said. "There's been times where he hasn't been able to get started and that's always a problem with the running game. If you can't get them through the line of scrimmage, you can gain some yards, but it's hard.
"There are things he can do better. Certainly we can block better and coach better so we'll try to do those and improve in every part of our offense, not just the running game but play-actions and passing game and everything else."
The Patriots aren't getting players like Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, Trent Brown, David Andrews or Develin — all key to their run-game success last year — back any time soon. But what might help them this weekend is that they'll be able to try to iron out their issues against a middle-of-the-pack rush defense. The Bills, who just lost talented defensive tackle Harrison Phillips to a season-ending ACL injury, are allowing 4.4 yards per rush this season.
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