FOXBORO, Mass. — When Patriots running back Sony Michel is on the field, opposing defenses know New England is going to run the ball, which is a problem. Until it’s not.
Let us explain.
Michel has 74 offensive snaps this season, per Pro Football Focus. He’s run the ball 45 times, been used as a run blocker nine times, ran 10 routes and pass-blocked 10 times. The Patriots run the ball 73 percent of the time Michel is on the field. Because opposing defenses know this, the Patriots average just 2.46 yards per carry on those snaps, with Michel himself averaging 2.4 yards per carry. Then again, the Patriots are averaging an almost equally meager 2.98 yards per carry when Michel isn’t on the field, so while there’s a dropoff, it’s not overly significant. The Patriots’ running game goes from bad to slightly worse with Michel on the field.
But let’s go back to defenses knowing the Patriots are going to run the ball when Michel is on the field. That’s great for the opposition until the Patriots don’t run the ball. The Patriots are averaging 12.29 yards per pass with Michel on the field versus 8.05 yards per pass when he’s not.
Granted, we’re talking two small sample sizes here. It’s 74 plays with Michel and 143 without him. But this tells us when opposing defenses are preparing to stop the run, the Patriots are breaking off big passing plays in response.
The Patriots have been extremely effective using play-action this season, which also plays into Michel’s usage. When the Patriots fake a handoff to Michel against a defense already thinking run, that opens up the field even more. It’s also worth noting Michel has been a very good pass blocker through three games.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is 22-of-31 for 331 yards with two touchdowns and 10.7 yards per passing attempt (127.2 passer rating) when using play action. He’s 50-of-75 for 580 yards with five touchdowns and 7.7 yards per passing attempt without play-action (112.1 passer rating).
The Patriots’ three biggest passing plays in Week 3 — a 41-yard catch by tight end Ryan Izzo, a 25-yard touchdown catch by Phillip Dorsett and a 22-yard catch by Josh Gordon — all featured play action to Michel.
If the Patriots get Michel more involved in the passing game, perhaps it would open up his room to run. But there’s a tradeoff here, and the Patriots are winning with how their offense currently is constructed. If the Patriots start featuring Michel more in the passing game, then it could affect their ability to manufacture big plays through play-action.
All in all, the Patriots are averaging 6 yards per play. They’re averaging roughly 5.12 yards per play when Michel is on the field and 6.71 yards per play when he’s off of the field. Most of that differential is due to the fact that Michel is on the field for the majority of New England’s running plays, which average fewer yards than passing plays.
All of this is to say that being predictable on offense is viewed as a negative, but it can turn into a positive when used in a team’s favor. Michel would probably provide better overall value if he had more than seven career receptions. But if the middle of the defense opened up against the run, some of those opportunities to exploit using play-action would go away. If the Patriots are desperate to get their run game going, then they should try to get Michel more involved in the passing game. But those 4 extra yards per pass when he’s on the field have perhaps been more valuable than an improved rushing attack through three games.