Sony Michel’s evolution with the Patriots

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Playing running back for the New England Patriots is different than most teams, as Sony Michel has been finding out this season.

Lining up right next to or behind Tom Brady brings on added responsibility.

Under Bill Belichick’s tenure New England has made a priority of getting smart football players who have a deep understanding of the game. This can make it hard for younger players to get on the field, especially at positions of greater impact.

Belichick and the Patriots took Michel 31st overall in April’s draft. In an age where the debate over the importance of the running back position is constantly on the table, many found it surprising that New England would spend a first-round pick on one.

Michel was a highly touted prospect coming out of Georgia who showed burst, agility and toughness over four years of running for the Bulldogs.

A knee injury suffered in training camp held him back from debuting in Week 1, and he only ran for 84 yards on 24 carries through Week’s 2 and 3.

It was a shaky start for Michel’s young career, but in Week 4, Michel and the Patriots welcomed in the undefeated Miami Dolphins where both teams would face early season gut checks.

New England came out believing they were bigger and nastier than Miami up front. They planned on running the ball early and often with Michel as the feature back.

Running the Ball

The Patriots jumpstarted Michel by getting him behind fullback James Develin (#46) in the I formation. The classic lead being the play of choice.

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New England’s offensive focus when the Dolphins came to their house in Week 4 was running the ball out of big personnel sets. This play is in 22 personnel. Rob Gronkowski (#87) is down on the right side of the line, Dwayne Allen (#83) is in the slot. The play is a lead to the B-gap with Develin being the key block on the play. Michel’s job is to receive the hand off, follow Develin and cut off of his block. Michel shows burst running through the hole, breaks an arm tackle, then makes the defense pay for tackling him.

Michel had a career day, securing his first 100-yard rushing game and his first career touchdown.

Michel was impressive, but New England’s offensive line consistently blew the Dolphins off the ball and created huge running lanes. This was a trend that would continue over to Week 5 when they blew out the Indianapolis Colts.

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Brady and McDaniels dial up a wham play out of 11 personnel. Rob Grownkowsi has the key block on this play having to take on Al Woods (#99) who is playing the 1-technique. Gronkowski executes perfectly and Michel sets Clayton Geathers (#26) in his sights for another punishing finish. Because of Grownkowski and the offensive line, New England’s running backs had plenty of room to run on the Colts defense and were consistently able to break into the second and third level untouched.

Michel continued to pour it on the Colts later in the fourth quarter with an impressive 34-yard touchdown.

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11 personnel again for New England, this time the play is a power through the left C gap. The play is executed beautifully by New England’s offensive line. Left tackle Trent Brown (#77) and left guard Joe Thuney (#62) perfectly execute a double team up to the second level. Right guard Shaq Mason (#69) pulls around leading Michel to the hole and ultimately pay dirt. Michel does an excellent job being patient behind his blocks and bursting through the hole, and he finished by shoving a man to the ground and outrunning another to the pylon.

Pass Catching

As a runner, Michel has already figured out the NFL to a degree and is in a system that is willing to run it however they need to. In order to become another lethal weapon in Brady’s arsenal, Michel needs to take the next step as a pass catcher.

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New England is in 30 personnel with James White (#28) to Brady’s left and Michel to his right. James Develin starts in the slot to boundary side, Brady motions him over to the field side of the formation. Cornerback Lenzy Pipkins (#37) follows Develin across the field indicating man coverage. The Colts disguise a Cover 2 zone allowing them to keep their eyes on the quarterback and make a tackle on anything underneath. However, the Patriots are prepared with a double screen. Brady looks at White first and pump fakes his direction drawing in Colts on the defensive line and in the second level dropping into coverage. Brady whips around to hit Michel with two blockers set up in front.

Only a 12-yard gain but Michel sells pass protection, catches with natural hands, and bursts to the perimeter.

Rest of Season Outlook

As Michel continues to progress as the Patriots primary ground threat, the targets from Brady will come in time.

It took Michel awhile to look comfortable in the NFL, which is no surprise for a rookie. What’s encouraging is that Michel has gotten better and is looking more like the star at Georgia with every week. The Patriots did a great job getting Michel acclimated to the NFL with the big sets featuring multiple backs and tight ends. Between the Dolphins and Colts game, Michel was on the field for 59 snaps. New England used Michel in 21 personnel on 30 snaps and 11 personnel on 16 snaps. The use of simple man gap run schemes has also helped ease Michel into a groove early in games.

With another first-round running back finding early season success, it only adds fuel to the heated running back debate. Look for Michel to be a difference maker as the Patriots continue on their rampant tear through the NFL.

Follow Jake on Twitter @JakeSchwanitz. Check out the rest of his work here, including his look at Oklahoma State running back Justice Hillbreaking down Case Keenum’s first start in Denver and Colorado safety Evan Worthington.

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