First things first: It would be crazy to make any grand, sweeping proclamations about a rookie just two games into his NFL career, especially a first-round draft pick who missed the entire preseason.
With that said, running back Sony Michel really has struggled during the early days of his New England Patriots career.
Michel, who sat out the preseason and Week 1 with a knee injury suffered early in training camp, has put together back-to-back underwhelming performances since returning to action, scuffling along with the rest of the Patriots’ offense in lopsided road losses to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions.
Despite Michel’s lack of success, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has made the former Georgia star the focal point of New England’s ground game, to the point where the offense has become uncharacteristically predictable when Michel is on the field.
Against the Jaguars, Michel either touched the ball or was targeted on 12 of his 13 offensive snaps (10 carries, one catch, one incompletion). He finished with 34 rushing yards and 7 receiving yards, and the Patriots lost 31-20.
That ratio improved Sunday night against Detroit but still was not ideal: Michel got the ball on 17 of his 23 snaps (14 carries for 50 yards, one catch for minus-1 yard, two incompletions) in New England’s 26-10 defeat. The Lions’ defense stuffed him on two third-and-1s and held him to just 10 yards on seven carries in the first half.
Add those games up, and Michel has touched the ball or been targeted on 29 of his first 36 offensive snaps as a Patriot — a whopping 80.6 percent. And given his overall ineffectiveness — 17 of his 24 carries have gained 3 yards or fewer, compared to just two gains of 10-plus yards — it’s fair to wonder why exactly he’s had such a significant role in McDaniels’ last two game plans.
Quarterback Tom Brady seemed to be asking that question Sunday night when he noted he wants to see running back James White more involved in the offense. White, who scored the Patriots’ lone touchdown against the Lions, had just seven touches in the game, with three of his four carries coming during a final garbage-time drive.
Since Michel entered the lineup, he’s carried the ball significantly more than White (eight times) and Rex Burkhead (six, including zero Sunday before leaving with a neck injury in the second half) combined. McDaniels was asked to explain this approach Monday during a conference call with reporters.
“Every young player has to make progress and improve, and one of the most important, if not the most important way to do it is through experience and practice and in games,” McDaniels explained. “So we?re trying to (do that). Sony?s working really hard. I really like Sony Michel. He?s doing a good job in practice of trying to execute things the right way. He?s learning from his mistakes.
“And again, I think that the best thing for us to focus on is to try to take the things that we do well and learn from those and take the things that we?re making mistakes on and try to learn from those so we don?t repeat them. I think he has a very good attitude about that. We do, too, and we?re going to try to make progress each week as we go forward this season.”
Run-blocking issues and predictability of play-calling haven’t helped Michel’s cause, but he also hasn’t displayed the kind of explosiveness and athleticism that made him such a dangerous player for one of the best teams in college football last season. It’s clear he’s still finding his footing at the NFL level — not overly surprising considering all the time he missed this summer.
Making Michel the Patriots’ lead back addresses his need for experience, sure. But at what cost?