Why a Rookie Running Back Is the Patriots’ Most Important Player

Sony Michel (No. 26) of the New England Patriots

Source Composite Sean Culligan/OZY, Image Getty

Why you should care

It’s no surprise when QB Tom Brady leads a game-winning drive. But the data show New England’s path to victory is the run.

Just as New England Patriots captain Matthew Slater predicted, the overtime coin flip came up heads. Patriots’ ball. We’d seen this story before. 

With a Super Bowl berth on the line, it took 13 plays and 4:52 for New England to find the end zone. A 10-yard Tom Brady pass to Chris Hogan here, a 20-yard dart to Julian Edelman there. Vintage Rob Gronkowski even appeared. From there, Rex Burkhead — New England’s goal-line bruiser — barreled into the end zone for a 2-yard game-winner. “America’s worst nightmare is back!” Patriots broadcaster Scott Zolak hollered from the booth. You can say that again.

But on Brady’s final dissection of the Kansas City defense, one player who did the heavy lifting all day was notably absent: starting running back Sony Michel. Brady, as he’s wont to do, will need to shine in crunch time this Sunday. But to win a sixth Super Bowl ring in the Brady-Bill Belichick era, New England needs to keep feeding Michel.

Since 2001, the Patriots are 11-0 in the postseason when a player rushes for at least 100 yards.

In the regular season over that same span, New England’s record with a 100-yard rusher jumps to an even more impressive 51-1. Yes, you read that correctly: Since Brady took over as New England’s starting quarterback in Week 3 of the 2001 season, the Patriots have lost just once when someone rushes for at least 100 yards. This season, that’s music to Belichick’s ears. Much like he did in 2001 — when Brady was an inexperienced game manager not yet ready to carry the total burden of an offense — the head coach has built this Patriots team into one that relies heavily on ball control via the run game. The difference these days is that Brady is Brady, the expert surgeon who makes all of the right choices and will exploit a defense when given the chance. And so far this postseason, many of those chances have come thanks to the rushing attack.  

 

This season has been a productive, if inconsistent, one from Michel. New England drafted the rookie out of the University of Georgia with the 31st pick of the first round, drawing the ire of fans who wanted quarterback Lamar Jackson. Conventional wisdom these days is that running backs almost never live up to a first-round draft value. “It’s not that first-round running backs aren’t good players,” says Good Morning Football’s Peter Schraeger. “It’s that quality running backs can be found in the later rounds. It’s a waste of a first-round pick that could be used elsewhere.”

But Michel’s performance is a reminder not to question Belichick. After a slow start due to injury, Michel rushed for 112 yards against Miami in Week 4, the first of six games over 100 yards this season. Over the year, including a hot postseason, the rookie has tallied 1,173 yards and 11 touchdowns on 262 carries — on par with Super Bowl champion Patriots backs Corey Dillon and LeGarrette Blount. And in the playoffs, Michel has been at his best: 129 yards and three touchdowns in the divisional round against the Chargers, 113 yards and two scores at Kansas City. Belichick will always put the ball in Brady’s hand when a game-winning drive is needed, but to get there New England will ride Michel to triple digits rushing.

The one thing standing in the way of Michel and a Super Bowl ring, of course, is the Los Angeles Rams defense, where the Rams’ biggest threat is the pass rush. Defensive tackles Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh, two of the fiercest linemen in football, will look to terrorize Brady on dropbacks. Yet in games of this magnitude Belichick is a master at exploiting the opponents’ weakness. Where that is, exactly, remains to be seen, but the run game is as good a guess as any. Los Angeles ranked 19th in total defense with 358.6 yards allowed per game this regular season, and a paltry 23rd (of 32 teams) in rush defense with 122 opponents’ yards per game. Those numbers have vastly improved amid this two-game postseason run — the Rams held the Cowboys and Saints to an average of 49 rushing yards, and yards per carry dropped from 5.1 to 2.3 — but Belichick may look to force a regression to the mean. 

Through 39 playoff games together, the Brady-Belichick tandem has proved the most profitable in sports. Nine Super Bowl trips and a 29-10 playoff record are a testament to that. But as great a quarterback as Brady is, he’s still human. Without the help of a 100-yard rushing attack, his playoff record is just 18-10.

Is that an indictment of Brady or of Belichick’s coaching tendencies? Probably a mix of both. If the Patriots make easy work of the Rams, let’s just hope Brady buys his running back something nice.

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