Patriots

The keys to the rest of the Patriots' season are Sony Michel's legs

The keys to the rest of the Patriots' season are Sony Michel's legs

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.

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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.

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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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Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin describes introductory FaceTimes with Tom Brady

Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin describes introductory FaceTimes with Tom Brady

Tom Brady is already making a point to get to know his new teammates in Tampa Bay.

The former New England Patriots quarterback had one request after signing with the Buccaneers last week, and that was all of his teammates' phone numbers. One particular player he's already reached out to is one of his new favorite targets, Chris Godwin.

In a recent interview with Ros Gold-Onwude of The Boardroom, Godwin detailed the dynamic of his first FaceTime conversations with Brady.

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“Really it’s literally just getting to know each other,” Godwin told Gold-Onwude. “Just early introductory things. Just trying to get a feel for who we are as people more than anything else. Like we didn’t talk ball or anything, really just about how excited we both are to play with each other.”

“For me, I’m just going to learn," he added. “You know, learn as much as I can from somebody who’s arguably the G.O.A.T., and I’m just ready to roll.”

The learning curve probably won't be all that steep for Godwin, who broke out in a big way last season for the Bucs. The 24-year-old was one of the top wide receivers in all of football, tallying 121 catches for 1,333 yards and nine touchdowns.

Godwin went on to describe his initial reaction to Brady -- who's been in the league since Godwin was four years old -- becoming his new QB.

“At first it was a little weird, cause it’s like I feel like it’s someone I’ve watched my entire life, Godwin said. "Like you said, he’s my colleague now so past the initial interaction it’s like alright, cool. This is starting to feel a little more normal now.”

You can watch the full interview below:

Godwin happens to wear No. 12 for the Bucs, but recently said he'll give it up to TB12 if the six-time Super Bowl champion asks for it.

Patriots WR N'Keal Harry already seems to be embracing the underdog role

Patriots WR N'Keal Harry already seems to be embracing the underdog role

Over the course of the New England Patriots' dynasty, NFL fans learned a valuable lesson: never count the Patriots out.

But with Tom Brady leaving after 20 years to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, that has quickly changed. Suddenly, the Pats are perceived as underdogs.

It isn't difficult to see why. The quarterback position now is a real area of concern, and several key contributors from 2019 have departed in free agency.

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Pats wide receiver N'Keal Harry, however, doesn't seem worried. The 2019 first-round pick took to Twitter on Saturday with a message for the doubters.

The 22-year-old certainly isn't lacking in confidence.

If the Patriots are to exceed expectations without Brady, Harry will be counted on to be a focal point in the offense. New England's wide receiver depth chart currently consists of Harry, Julian Edelman, Mohamed Sanu, and Jakobi Meyers. There's also a strong chance the position is addressed again via the draft, which takes place next month.

The real question is who will be throwing the ball to Harry when the 2020 NFL season kicks off. Right now, 2019 fourth-rounder Jarrett Stidham is the odds-on favorite to be Brady's successor.

Harry tallied 12 receptions for 105 yards and two touchdowns in seven games during his rookie campaign.