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Nora Princiotti

A running game would really help the Patriots, as it did during win streak

A healthy Sony Michel would be a big boost to the Patriots offense.
A healthy Sony Michel would be a big boost to the Patriots offense.(matthew j. lee/Globe staff)

FOXBOROUGH — If Rob Gronkowski returns to full health this season, that return probably have the biggest impact on the Patriots’ offense of any player or group. The return of a strong running game is a close second, though.

When the Patriots rush for 97 yards or more, they’re undefeated. When they don’t hit that mark, they’re 1-3, the single win coming against the Bills. New England is coming off its worst ground game output of the year, a paltry 40-yard effort against the Titans mustered with a limited Sony Michel and a game script that forced them to abandon the run early.

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“I think it’s awesome,” wide receiver Chris Hogan said Monday. “Whenever we get our ground game going, our run game, get our backs involved, I think it opens up the passing game tremendously.”

With Michel recovering from a knee injury and Rex Burkhead still on IR, the Patriots have patched together a running game by asking James White to run between the tackles more than usual and by converting Cordarrelle Patterson from wide receiver to running back.

They’ve done what they can in a less than advantageous situation, but the offense has taken a significant hit.

The best stretch of the year for the Patriots’ offensestarted with the Dolphins game in Week 4 and continued through the Bears game in Week 7. The Patriots scored 38, 38, 43 and 38 points.

That stretch also happens to be when Michel was up, running and healthy, at least for the first part of the Bears game. If Michel is equally productive coming back from his knee injury as he was before going down in Chicago, it should make a big difference for the Patriots offense as a whole.

“I would love to have them back, of course,” White said of his teammates Tuesday. “But whenever they’re back, then they’re back. If they’re not with us, we’ve just got to go out there and still compete. Those guys are good football players, and whenever they’re out there they definitely give us a boost, for sure.”

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One of the biggest boosts comes on third down. During that stretch from the Dolphins game to the Bears game, the Patriots converted 28 of 53 third down opportunities (52 percent). The Patriots season-average third down conversion rate is 39.7 percent.

The Patriots have also shown that they need an effective running game to convert on third and short, the kind of manageable conversions good teams have to make with some consistency. New England has converted 57.5 percent of the time on third and 3 or less this season overall, but 41.2 percent of the time when passing on third and 3 or less and 69.6 percent of the time when running.

It helps the play action game significantly. When healthy, the Patriots offensive line is more than able to get good push. Guards Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney are particularly good at creating space. The interior is the strength of New England’s offensive line, but they’re less able to take advantage of that strength when the running backs are unavailable.

Along with Michel’s expected to return, Burkhead can come off injured reserve in Week 13 against the Vikings, assuming he’s healthy. His ability to stay that way is a concern, but when Burkhead has been on the field for the Patriots he’s been effective, averaging 4.1 yards per attempt and an 83.3 percent catch rate last season in 10 games.

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Before the bye week started, Tom Brady was asked if he felt the offense had an identity, and he answered rather slowly and ponderously. The truth is that the Patriots haven’t done any single thing exceptionally and consistently well this season. When they’ve been good, they’ve been balanced, and getting back to that could mean getting back to the kind of scoring numbers they were putting up in that stretch of the season when the running game was most effective.


Nora Princiotti can be reached at nora.princiotti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @NoraPrinciotti.