EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Following a miserable loss to the Tennessee Titans two weeks ago, Bill Belichick issued a simple challenge to his New England Patriots offense.
“The challenge,” Sony Michel recalled from his podium at MetLife Stadium, “was just to be able to run the football consistently.”
After rushing for a paltry 40 yards against Tennessee, the Patriots exploded for a season-high 215 on Sunday in a 27-13 victory over the New York Jets.
Michel, who was held in check against the Titans in his return from a knee injury, had his best game as a pro, gashing the Jets’ defense for a career-high 133 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries. And James White, typically a pass-catching specialist, also set a new career best with 73 yards on nine carries.
“That’s just us being able to play Patriot football,” Michel said. “We want to be physical. When you’re physical, you can run the ball, you can throw the ball. It’s almost like you control the line of scrimmage and do what you want to do.”
As he did following his two previous 100-yard rushing efforts, Michel credited the Patriots’ offensive line and fullback James Develin for his success Sunday. New England’s O-line was at full strength for the first time in nearly a month with starting right guard Shaq Mason back from a calf injury and tight end Rob Gronkowski at full strength following ankle and back ailments.
“They were doing a tremendous job,” said Michel, the first Patriots rookie since Robert Edwards to record three 100-yard rushing efforts. “They took pride in what they were doing today. I mean, they always take pride. They love doing what they do. I just can’t commend those guys (enough). Believe it or not, they should be up here talking to you guys, because without them, the wouldn’t be no running lanes.”
Speaking next door in the Patriots’ locker room, center and team co-captain David Andrews said he was proud of the way New England physically dominated the Jets after failing to do so in its previous outing. Physicality and a strong running game have yielded positive results all season for the Patriots, who have averaged 136.1 rushing yards per game in their eight wins and just 70.3 per game in their three defeats.
New England totaled 211 rushing yards in losses to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Detroit Lions and Titans — 4 fewer than they tallied in Sunday’s contest alone.
“I think that was pretty obvious,” Andrews said. “I think you look at games we’ve lost, we haven’t been able to run the ball. In games we have, we’ve found success. It kind of all stems from there, and an offensive lineman, you’ve got to take a lot of pride in that.”
Michel posted his strong stat line despite having 25- and 16-yard carries called back because of penalties. (The Patriots committed a season-high 11 of those.) He also missed time during the second half with what initially appeared to be a serious lower back injury.
After having his torso bent in unnatural fashion on a third-and-short carry, Michel spent one possession on the sideline before returning to the field and immediately ripping off a 33-yard run on his first snap. The Georgia product capped that drive with a 1-yard touchdown plunge that put New England ahead 24-13.
“I just got tackled, got tweaked up a little bit,” said Michel, who’s missed three games with knee injuries this season. “It’s just part of the game.”
During Michel’s brief absence, White ran for 27 yards down the right sideline to help set up a Julian Edelman touchdown catch. The receiving ace also had a 24-yard carry in the final minutes to put the game away.
“It was very important,” White said of the Patriots’ success on the ground. “In the Tennessee game, we know we didn’t really get the running game going at all, so that was an emphasis. Everybody looked themselves in the mirror during the bye week and wanted to get the run game going. Offensive line did a great job, receivers, tight ends, and Sony was getting downhill, so we had some success with it.”
Thumbnail photo via Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports Images