FOXBOROUGH — The question, posed after the Dolphins game Sept. 30, was about the addition of Josh Gordon giving the rest of the Patriots wide receivers a bit more breathing room.
Phillip Dorsett had a different answer.
“The biggest thing was the running game,” Dorsett course-corrected. “We got that going and we were hard to stop. When you have to pay attention to that everything just opens up for Tom [Brady].”
The offense would be well-served to see that kind of balance this Sunday, when the Patriots are tasked with keeping up with the undefeated Chiefs. Luckily for the Patriots, they’ve been trending in the right direction on the ground and are facing a defense that’s easily picked on by the run.
The Patriots are averaging 4.1 yards per carry, which is right around the benchmark many NFL people use to evaluate a good ground game. With pretty much all offensive statistics looking juicy this year, it’s good for 14th through five weeks (through Sunday’s games).
The best performances have been the more recent ones. The Patriots’ best effort on the ground was in Week 4 against Miami, with 175 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 40 carries.
They were again strong, though not as prolific, on the ground against the Colts with 97 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries.
In those two games, Sony Michel looked like an effective back with every-down potential. It was an impressive for the rookie, who missed the entire preseason and gained just 84 yards on 24 carries in his first two games.
There are some areas where he’s struggled still, though, and one of them is in making negative plays. There have been 12 instances this year when Michel has run for no gain at best.
The blocking, which overall has been good the last two games, is a factor. Both of his touchdowns have come on the left side (with left guard Joe Thuney deserving particular credit blocking for one against Miami) and Michel hasn’t been stuffed in the last two games going that direction.
Time should assist Michel in getting to know the tendencies of right guard Shaq Mason, typically a great run blocker, and right tackle Marcus Cannon so that he can be more patient running behind them.
“We’re always working to try to make each part of our game as productive as we can,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “So, whether it’s big runs or just consistent, solid runs that put us in good down-and-distance situations, we need to improve in those areas.”
Michel’s time with the ball may also come down some, which might make things easier for him by making the offense less predictable. Michel is getting the ball three out of every four snaps he’s on the field (96 snaps, 73 touches, 76 percent). Michel touched the ball on 80.5 percent of snaps in weeks 2 and 3 and 73 percent in weeks 4 and 5 — even though only he and James White were active in Week 5.
The Patriots re-signed running back Kenjon Barner on Monday, four days after they released him the day of the Colts game to make room for Julian Edelman. Bill Belichick said in a radio interview on WEEI that they will “probably not” go into another game with just two active running backs.
Chiefs week may be a good time to iron out some of the remaining kinks in the run game. Kansas City has allowed opposing rushers to generate 5.8 yards per carry, the worst mark in the NFL.
Their game scripts can’t explain this away. Their offense has been exceptional, but they have mostly been in close games when they weren’t only concerned about big passing plays.
Patriots center David Andrews said it’s important to be in a position where they can use the threat of the run to their advantage. By his estimation, Kansas City’s pass rush is the toothiest part of it’s defense, and most dangerous when an offense is one-dimensional.
“Offense gets up and now, as an opponent, you’re throwing the ball a lot more and they’re creating more opportunities to pass rush, you’re kind of playing from behind. They’ve got very good rushers,” Andrews said.
So, Sunday night might be a good night to have a good night for the Patriots running game, both to build on what they’ve done over the last two weeks and to keep Brady and the receiving corps in good positions.
Balance may not be the most exciting way to keep up with the highest-flying offense in the NFL, but it might be the right one.