When the Patriots offense is operating at a highly efficient level — something that’s become customary for New England — there usually are myriad running backs filling specialized roles.
It has been a signature of Bill Belichick ’s to extract maximum performance from the overlooked and unproven. Three different players — Dion Lewis, LeGarrette Blount, and Jonas Gray — exceeded expectations to be the team’s leading rushers the last four seasons. When Gray led the Patriots in their 2014 championship season with 412 rushing yards, Blount, Shane Vereen, and Stevan Ridley combined for 1,012 more.
The fact that the Patriots put the bulk of the responsibility on Sony Michel — a 23-year-old rookie with two NFL games on his résumé — in their 26-10 loss to the Detroit Lions Sunday night was not extraordinary. The lacking results were.
Michel struggled to find a rhythm in an overall underwhelming performance by the Patriots, but Josh McDaniels did not lament funneling the running game through the young back.
“Well, we tried to use all of our skill players,” the offensive coordinator said on a conference call Monday. “Sony certainly is a young player. Trying to bring him along and improve, just like everybody else. Nothing special or anything like that.
“We just tried to do the things we feel we could do to move the ball and make first downs and score points, and obviously we didn’t do a very good job of that. That’s my responsibility. We need to do a better job.”
Michel rushed for 50 yards on 14 attempts, including twice in the second quarter when he carried on third-and-short and got stuffed.
James White has never been asked to fulfill the role as the Patriots’ bell-cow back, but it was worth questioning why he didn’t get more touches when Michel was struggling. White finished with four carries for 37 yards, though 32 of them came in the second half when the Patriots were chasing. White also caught three passes for 10 yards and the Patriots’ only touchdown.
“I have confidence in all of our backs,” McDaniels said. “James certainly plays a big role every week, did some good things last night, but Sony ran hard. We’re never going to go into a game plan and try to focus on one guy being the guy that’s in there the entire time.”
Perhaps the biggest difference is that the Patriots are lacking the playmakers in the passing game — save for Rob Gronkowski and the suspended Julian Edelman — who have kept defenses honest in the past, paving the way for the rushers.
After three games, the Patriots rank 26th in rushing offense.
Veteran Jeremy Hill tore his ACL in the season opener and Rex Burkhead injured his neck Sunday. If the loss to the Lions was any indication, it’s clear the Patriots will be counting on the development of Michel, who missed the preseason with a knee injury, to buoy the offense out of the backfield
No Gordon timetable
Josh Gordon did not make his debut with the Patriots in Detroit, and Belichick did not clarify a timetable for the wide receiver seeing game action.
Gordon warmed up on the field but was inactive. He had been listed as limited in practice with a hamstring injury, one he apparently sustained Sept. 14 at a promotional photo shoot and played a factor in his departure from Cleveland.
“Yeah, I don’t know,” Belichick said on the conference call. “We’ll just take it day by day and see how it goes. There are a number of factors involved here. When he feels like he’s ready and we feel like he’s ready and there’s sufficient opportunity to back that up, then we’ll see about making him active.
“We just didn’t feel like we were at that point last night.”
The hope is that the skilled Gordon can contribute something, assuming that he can pick up the playbook and remain available, the latter of which he was unable to do in Cleveland.
“I don’t know exactly how close or . . . you know, it’s hard to put percentages on that,” said McDaniels, who added that Gordon is working hard at learning the system. “Coach makes those decisions.
“We’re going to prepare everybody to play, and then whatever the active situation is on a week-to-week basis, then that’s what we have and we try to do the best thing that we can with him.”
Deatrich Wise was noticeably trying to bring some energy to a defensive unit that badly needed it Sunday. He made a big impact on the second play of the third quarter when he got to Blount for a 1-yard loss, then sacked Matthew Stafford on the first play of the next drive.
He popped up for an animated celebration and pointed to the wrap on his dislocated finger.
“Deatrich has done a good job for us,” defensive line coach Brendan Daly said. “He did a couple of good things. I’d say, as with all of us, there’s things that he can improve on, but he does bring a good energy and a good spirit and he’s got a positive attitude and he works hard and has gotten better.”
Wise was the lone bright spot for a unit that allowed the Lions to expose soft spots, gashing the Patriots for 414 yards, including 159 rushing, and converting 50 percent of their 14 third-down opportunities.
“I think the effort and the energy are good,” Belichick said. “We’re just not having a lot of success in any area, and I think as soon as we start having some, you’ll see a difference. But it’s hard to have it when you’re not making enough plays.
“We’re not making enough plays in any phase of the game, so we’ve just got to perform better. I think the energy and the effort and all of that — we’re trying. Everybody’s trying hard. We’re just not getting it done, which is all that matters.”