The key to the rest of the Patriots season isn’t Tom Brady’s arm. It’s Sony Michel’s legs.
During the 13-quarter stretch when Michel was up-to-speed and healthy after missing all of the preseason, the Patriots scored 38 against the Dolphins and Colts, 43 against the Chiefs and seven more in the only quarter Michel played against the Bears when he had 22 yards on four carries before injuring his right knee on the first play of the second quarter.
That’s 126 points.
The offense scored 73 points in the three games without Michel and 10 more last week against Tennessee as Michel was eased back in and the Titans took control of the game early, rendering his return moot (11 carries, 31 yards).
When Michel went down, none of the backs available appealed enough to the Patriots for them to make a move. So they duct-taped a running game together and they managed with 26 carries from wide receiver Cordarelle Patterson since the Bears game, 32 from James White and 13 from Kenjon Barner.
Wins over the Bears, Bills and Packers argue that it worked, but only to a point. They ran into a wall against the Titans, who overwhelmed the Patriots at the line of scrimmage, got into the faces of their receivers and forced low-percentage throws from Brady that had low-percentage returns.
Brady needs a running game that demands a measure of respect from defensive coordinators. And that’s not just because he’s 41. He needs a running game because of the domino effect it will have on down-and-distance and the way it impacts second-level defenders who will have to think twice on play-action.
In the past three games, the Patriots are 11 for 40 on third down (27 percent). For a team that likes to run the ball on first-and-10 (143 attempts, third in the NFL), getting behind the sticks leads to sticky second and third-down calls that are harder to convert when the offensive threats don’t include Rob Gronkowski.As for play-action, the threat of Michel or Rex Burkhead (who can return Week 13 against the Vikings) running behind a line that includes two of the best run-blockers at their position (right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Marcus Cannon, who’ve both been injured) is a lot different than when it’s Patterson or White. The Patriots’ play-action effectiveness was at its peak when Michel was putting up numbers.
The importance of a potent running game – especially for a team that’s done just fine offensively with a rotating cast of JAG ball-carriers for much of Brady’s career – brings snorts of derision. But you can only be effective throwing the ball 45 times a game if you have effective pass-catchers to throw to.
Gronk’s either been limited or unavailable since September. Chris Hogan has seemingly been persona non grata for more than a month. Josh Gordon is a fine accessory but he’s not giving them what Brandin Cooks did last year. There is no Danny Amendola bail-out option.
So it’s left to Julian Edelman and White to carry the load – they’ve carried the ball or been targeted with passes 115 times between them in the past four games (28.75 carries or targets between them per game). That’s a lot and it’s not hard for defenses to figure where Brady’s going when he’s gotta have yards.
Brady doesn’t need to lean on a running game the way Peyton Manning did when he guiled the Broncos to a Super Bowl win in 2015.
Brady isn’t physically diminished. But he doesn’t have enough around him right now to survive without one.
Despite this week’s rush to say that Brady’s never looked this impotent, we have seen it before. In 2015, the Patriots were without Edelman for the final seven regular season games, lost LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis to injury and were operating with a diminished Gronk.
That left Brady throwing to Amendola, Scott Chandler, White, Keshawn Martin and Brandon LaFell while handing off to Steven Jackson. The Patriots limped to a 2-4 finish which included an embarrassing season-ending loss to Miami when they tried like hell to establish a running game.
Edelman returned for a Divisional Playoff win over the Chiefs but the Patriots were overwhelmed in Denver thanks in large part to their inability to run the ball. They ran it 17 times for 44 yards (Brady had five carries). Brady threw it 56 times with 16 targets for White, 15 to Gronk and 13 to Edelman. It’s still a wonder they only lost 20-18.
This season doesn’t have to end like that one, though. This bye week affords Mason and Gronk to get back healthy, gives Michel and Burkhead another week to heal and allows the Patriots coaching staff to figure who’s been underutilized.
“Hopefully we can move into this stretch healthy,” Brady told SIRIUS radio this week. “I’ve been at the stadium every day and everyone’s excited … when you lose I think there’s (disappointment) you lost because you put a lot of effort into it but I think if you learn from the losses it becomes a positive and you say, ‘Guys, OK, we really clearly identified what we are not doing well, what we need to put more emphasis on,’ and a lot of times losses do that …
“Having all our players out there obviously helps the cause,” Brady added. “I mean when you have your guys healthy and playing and practicing, you know, that’s only a positive and I think that can be a real positive for us moving forward.”
Moving forward on the ground would be a big help.
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