Sony Michel left his post alongside Tom Brady in the Patriots backfield, drove toward the chest of a waiting Titans linebacker, and pounded his feet into the turf like a pair of drumsticks rattling quickly off the skin of a snare.
Then Michel did something he didn't often do over the course of his rookie season. He broke toward the sideline, whipped his head back to his quarterback, and caught a pass.
It was just one practice rep this week, but it served as further indication that the Patriots are trying to get Michel more integrated into the passing game. Throughout the course of training camp, the second-year player out of Georgia has been involved in seven-on-seven work, and he's been used as a receiver in 11-on-11 periods as well.
Michel has caught the ball naturally. He's looked like a capable route runner. He's created separation against defenders. He's provided a different kind of threat than the one he posed in 2018.
Will those practice snaps mean anything in terms of how Michel is deployed in 2019? They should. As much success as Michel found as a runner last season, the Patriots have almost no choice but to use him more as a receiver in his second season.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO PREDICTABILITY?
Whether it's Brady, Bill Belichick or someone relaying a quote from Ernie Adams, we've often heard the Patriots emphasize the importance of forcing defenses to defend "every blade of grass." They want to keep defenses guessing. And ideally, they would be completely unpredictable on every offensive snap. The more uncertainty there is floating around in the heads of linebackers, corners, and safeties, the better the odds of running an effective play.
For instance, what McDaniels did with the group he had late last year was a clinic in playing mind games with the professionals on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage. The Patriots ran more out of passing personnel groups and threw more out of running formations. They used their receiver-heavy groupings less often, and turned to running formations more frequently.
In the last month of the regular season, the Patriots went from throwing 70 percent of the time out of 11-personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers) to 63 percent. They also weaned themselves off of 11-personnel to a significant degree, using the league's most popular personnel package only 50 percent of the time, and bumping up their use of 21-personnel (two backs, one tight end, two receivers) from 24 percent to 35 percent. They went from running almost 60 percent of the time out of "21" to more of an even run-pass split (53 percent runs).
In the Super Bowl, after getting bogged down for most of the game, the Patriots called on heavier personnel packages to mess with the Rams. Despite groupings that might've indicated running plays were on the way, they chucked it. Brady threw out of "21" to Rob Gronkowski. He completed one to Julian Edelman out of a rare "22" (two backs, two tight ends) deployment, and then hit Rex Burkhead and Gronkowski again out of the same package to set up the game-winning score.
On their most important drive of their season, the Patriots flipped NFL tendencies upside down and ended up with a Lombardi Trophy.
That's why it's so strange that Michel was used the way he was last season. The argument could be made that, outside of kickers and punters, there was no more predictable player in the league last season.
RUN, SONY, RUN AND RUN SOME MORE
When the Patriots drafted Damien Harris in the spring — giving them a deep running back room that included Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead and Brandon Bolden — Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio was asked about the value in having varied skill sets in the backfield.
"The more versatile you are, the more you can do, then that's going to enhance your ability to do more things," Caserio said. "Guys like Burkhead are versatile. He can run, he can catch, he can block. Sony's a good runner. James is a good runner in his own way and he excels as a receiver.
"The game is sort of evolving here a little bit so if you can put a guy out there and he can do more than one thing, then that kind of gives you an advantage. We've been fortunate to have players like that through the years, like [Danny] Woodhead even in his role, Shane Vereen. Their skill sets are different, but the more versatile you are, it just kind of gives you the ability to be more flexible with your offense — Dion Lewis — we've been blessed and fortunate to have players like that."
Having Michel available to the Patriots in a versatile runner-slash-receiver capacity would carry worlds of value. It would make them more unpredictable and harder to defend. But of the 417 snaps Michel saw as a rookie, 316 resulted in running plays, according to Pro Football Focus. That meant when opposing defenses saw No. 26 in the huddle, there was a 76 percent chance the Patriots would be handing off.
In today's NFL, where the numbers skew toward the passing game — even for a team like the Patriots that made efforts to emphasize the run late in the season — that's a remarkable percentage.
Michel's run-pass split was the most drastic of any running back in football who had at least 130 carries last year. The only back who came close was Baltimore's Gus Edwards, who saw 72 percent of his snaps result in runs while playing for a team that had more rushing attempts than any offense since the 2014 Texans.
Even for the Patriots — who have employed backs with definitive roles for years — haven't had a ball-carrier as run-focused as Michel in years. LeGarrette Blount, someone who was perceived to have almost no value in the passing game, saw 64 percent of his plays result in runs during the team's run to a Super Bowl title in 2016. In 2018, as a member of the Lions, Blount saw a more level run-pass split than Michel did in New England, with 62 percent of his snaps resulting in handoffs.
Most No. 1 backs across the league, of course, have run-pass splits that lean more toward the pass. That's the league in this era. Saquon Barkley (66 percent), Ezekiel Elliott (59), Christian McCaffrey (64), Alvin Kamara (59) and Todd Gurley (65) were all primarily passing-game players last season.
Even Michel's college teammate Nick Chubb was on the field for more passing plays than running plays as a rookie (51 percent pass), and his NFL.com scouting report going into last year's draft read in part, "lack of third down value may end up hurting his draft stock... wasn't used often on passing downs at Georgia."
How, then, was it Michel whose splits ended up resembling those of a wing back in a wishbone offense?
The Patriots had a tremendous amount of success running the football with Michel at different points last year. He churned out 336 yards and six touchdowns in three playoff games. He ended up with a 4.5 yards-per-carry average and 1,267 yards rushing in 16 games (including playoffs).
That's what came naturally to him. That part of the game was more straightforward, particularly when fullback James Develin was on the field leading the way to daylight. It was a smooth transition to go from Georgia's "pro style" rushing attack to New England's.
The passing game was a different story.
Michel was thought to be a true dual-threat player coming out of college. That aspect of his game was widely viewed as part of the reason the Patriots were willing to spend a first-round pick on him in the first place. Otherwise, in a league where pure runners are found throughout the draft and in undrafted free agency, what was the point?
Here's what I wrote for NBC Sports Boston the night Michel was drafted:
"Michel seems like a rare talent. He's explosive. For the Bulldogs, Michel hit holes aggressively and showed against SEC competition that he had the speed to outrun defenders in the open field.
"But in the passing game is probably where Michel's true value will be at the next level. He may be the best pass-protector at the position in this year's class of backs (two hurries on 52 pass-blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus), and he's a capable receiver (64 catches, 621 yards receiving in his career) . . .
"You can see why the Patriots would like him because he's an all-purpose player. Though he doesn't run like Dion Lewis -- there's not much water-bug in his game -- they are similar in that they can both play on all three downs. Like Lewis, Michel can make it hard on defenses to decipher what the offense is doing because he'll be dangerous between the tackles, but also as a receiver."
Yet here were Michel's receiving numbers as a rookie: 14 targets, 8 receptions, 59 yards, two drops. Michel was targeted five times in his first two games as a pro, catching two for six total yards. After that, Brady threw his way just three times over the next eight games.
It was established early: Michel was not a passing-game threat.
Even as a pass-protector, despite his billing coming out of the draft, Michel was rarely used. Only five percent of his snaps as a rookie were spent in that role.
The best explanation for Michel's inactivity in the passing game? He missed a significant amount of preseason and training camp action as he dealt with a knee issue. While he could step in and quickly understand blocking schemes to execute run plays effectively, the number of variables involved in the passing game made it harder to grasp without the proper on-the-field reps.
CATCHING ON IN YEAR TWO?
Now that Michel has been healthy enough to take part in most of training camp, now that he's seen a significant number of passing-game reps with Brady, his lopsided run-pass splits have to even out to some extent.
"I think it'll help me overall just as a football player going onto the field being ready for the season," Michel said last week when asked if more practice time this summer might help him in the passing game.
"Physically, mentally. In camp when you get to get those reps, you get to get your conditioning going. Last year I missed those things so it was hard for me to get going a little bit. I think this year can kind of help a little bit and kind of prepare me for the season."
As a receiver, Michel isn't likely to live up to the lofty comparison laid out last year by an anonymous executive to ESPN's Mike Sando. ("Sony Michel has the potential to have an Alvin Kamara-type season," the exec said.) With James White and Rex Burkhead on the roster serving as the most experienced pass-catching backs at Brady's disposal, chances are Michel won't have the opportunity to produce numbers that would even sniff Kamara's in the passing game (81 catches the last two seasons for 1,535 total yards).
Plus it would come as no surprise if the Patriots continued to rely on a run-heavy attack that allows Brady to remain upright and alleviates some of the pressure on what look like thin position groups at receiver and tight end. That could mean there would be relatively few targets to go around.
But with more practice time under Michel's belt, with it looking like there's been some level of chemistry established between Brady and Michel as a quarterback-receiver combination, it would only make sense for Michel to be more involved in the passing game this year.
There's really only one way for him to go in that regard, which could do wonders for the team's pursuit of unpredictability.
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