Sony Michel’s Breakout Further Clouds Patriots’ Running Back Corps

Who's the odd-man-out in the Patriots' running back group?

Sony Michel picked a good week to churn out the most explosive, elusive and versatile performance of his New England Patriots career.

It took Michel just nine carries to gain 117 yards rushing. He picked up 86 yards on just two carries as he set a regular-season personal mark with a 38-yard run early in the third quarter and then topped that six minutes later with a 48-yard rush.

He picked up 8 yards after contact per attempt and forced three missed tackles in the game. His 218.2 elusive rating, a PFF metric, was the highest mark of his three-year pro career. He registered a 73.5 breakaway percentage which was also a career-high in a game Michel touched the ball more than five times.

Michel caught two passes out of the backfield for 23 yards and was technically sound on two pass blocking reps.

The offensive line’s blocking paved the way on both of Michel’s big gains, but the 2018 first-round pick also showed impressive vision, choosing to cut inside and get skinny to shimmy through a closing hole to turn what could have been a 10-yard run into a 38-yarder.

He forced missed tackles on the 48-yard run, as well.

The longer run ranks seventh in NFL Next Gen Stats’ most remarkable runs this season. The “expected rush yards” on the play was just 6 yards. The 38-yarder ranks 10th. His “expected rush yards” on that play was just 2 yards.

Overall, Michel was running through arm tackles and finishing runs better than he was in the first two weeks of the season. He looked like he was back at Georgia, where he was known for his cutbacks and big runs. He did lack the breakaway speed to finish, which could have turned those 38- and 48-yard gains into touchdowns.

The biggest question is whether it was too little, too late for the former Bulldog. Michel played 26 snaps to Rex Burkhead’s 32 and rookie J.J. Taylor’s 15. Burkhead also had himself a game, picking up 98 yards and three touchdowns on 13 touches. Taylor continued to show promise as he carried the ball 11 times for 43 yards. He did also drop a pass.

Running back Damien Harris is eligible to return off of injured reserve before Week 4, and James White was with his family this week after the death of his father. So, two more running backs soon could be thrust into what might be the most crowded backfield in the NFL.

Most teams don’t even carry five running backs. If they do, then not all of them will dress on game day. That means there’s going to be an odd man out in the Patriots’ running back stable. And without that 140-yard complete performance Sunday, then it very easily could have been Michel.

White is the third-down back. Burkhead is a do-everything (including special teams) option. Taylor has promise and contributes in the return game. Harris showed the potential to be the Patriots’ best and most complete running back in training camp.

And then there was Michel, who averaged just 3.3 yards per carry through the first two weeks of the season. That mark is up to 6.7 yards per carry now, and it seems impossible to bench Michel after he finally showed off his first-round potential.

“We’ll just try to do the best that we can in terms of game planning and creating opportunities and personnel groups and plays or whatever it is to try to attack our opponents,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said Monday. “But, I think you’ve got to be careful about changing your whole offense just to work a couple guys into the lineup if that’s going to detract from something else. So, there’s a balance there, but it’s good to have depth.”

Our best guess is that the Patriots will either wait to activate Harris or Taylor will remain on the roster but be on the inactive list on game days. The Patriots can shuffle their running back depth around this season as they see fit and as players excel and fall off. It’s probably a situation to avoid in fantasy football until a player declares himself as the bell cow and goal-line back.

Here are the rest of our notes from the Week 3 rewatch that we didn’t already cover in our weekly takeaways:

— Raiders safety and 2019 first-round pick Johnathan Abram had a rough game. Woof. Missed tackle city.

— The Patriots moved linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley around, including to the edge at outside linebacker. His lack of sideline-to-sideline speed has been exposed and won’t get exploited as much on the edge. They Patriots do still need a thumper in the middle of their defense. Bentley hasn’t made a major impact moving downhill this season as New England has been gashed in the run game.

— This was Cam Newton’s worst game as a Patriot, though he has set a high bar. He made more mistakes than impressive plays, throwing two hospital balls to Julian Edelman, two passes behind N’Keal Harry, a near-interception on a screen to Rex Burkhead and an actual interception as he tried to extend a play past its expiration date. He’ll regain form. But it’s worth noting he wasn’t as sharp in Week 3 as he was in his first two games.

— The Patriots had to rearrange some pieces with David Andrews hitting injured reserve with a broken hand. Joe Thuney was flawless snapping, and Michael Onwenu was a beast filling at left guard. Isaish Wynn had to miss 10 plays as he entered the week with a calf injury. He still played well though he did allow his first two pressures of the season. Right guard Shaq Mason was moving well on pulls throughout the game. The Patriots should continue to use this alignment until Andrews returns. Then Onwenu could push Jermaine Eluemunor for the starting spot at right tackle.

— The Patriots were getting creative with undrafted free agent wide receiver Isaiah Zuber on a jet sweep. They also used him as a pitch option on what wound up as a first-down carry by Burkhead.

— Tight end Devin Asiasi was up-and-down as a blocker and wasn’t targeted, but he did take on a greater share of snaps Sunday. Perhaps the Patriots will finally target one of their rookie tight ends — Dalton Keene has been inactive three straight weeks — in Week 4 against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Thumbnail photo via Brian Fluharty/USA TODAY Sports Images

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