EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Of all the areas the Patriots needed to get fixed following the blowout loss to the Titans two weeks ago, one stood out above the rest for the coaches.
It was a simple problem that is as old as the game of football itself: running the ball.
“Coach kind of gave us a challenge this week on being able to run the football,” running back Sony Michel said following the 27-13 win over the Jets on Sunday. “The challenge was just to be able to run the football consistently, and I think we did a great job of preparing in practice, and then it carried over into the game.”
The Patriots racked up 498 total yards on Sunday, and for a change they didn’t have to ride Tom Brady’s golden arm. Instead, they pounded the Jets into submission, rushing 36 times for 215 yards and a touchdown, averaging a whopping 6.0 yards per carry.
It marked the Patriots’ most rushing yards since they rushed for 246 in a 2014 win over the Colts. And Michel’s 133 rushing yards were the most by a Patriot since Jonas Gray went for 201 in that same 2014 win over the Colts (LeGarrette Blount rushed for 148 in the AFC Championship game win over Indy in the 2014 season).
James White added a career-high 73 rushing yards, easing the pressure off Brady and the passing game.
“It always helps when you can run the ball,” Bill Belichick said. “That opens up everything else, keeps you out of those long-yardage situations, which we’ve been in too many of those the last two to three weeks. So, it was good.”
The NFL is a passing league, and the Patriots owe their five Super Bowl championships and two decades of dominance to Brady and his ability to throw the football.
But Sunday’s win was the first time in a while that the Patriots had a credible running game. Michel missed hard-fought wins over the Bills and Packers with a knee injury, and was not quite himself yet when he returned for the Titans game.
But an extra week of rest during the bye week helped Michel regain his form, helped right guard Shaq Mason get healthy after missing two games, and helped the Patriots have their full starting line available for the first time in five games.
“We haven’t been very healthy at running back this year, but that’s just part of it,” Brady said.
“It was good to have Shaq Mason back in the lineup. I think that contributed to a lot of it,” receiver Josh Gordon added.
And it’s amazing how having a running game balances out the offense. Brady had a clean day, throwing for 283 yards and two touchdowns while not being intercepted or taking a sack. The Patriots’ 498 total yards were their second most this year, and they had 10 plays of 20-plus yards, by far their most this season (the previous best was six against the Bills and Packers).
“It just helps a lot of things,” Brady said of the run game. “They got up to play the run, play-action, we hit some chunks. We weren’t great in the red area today but made enough plays, and we’re happy we won.”
The Patriots’ passing game will always be the top priority, but when the Patriots run the ball well, good things happen. They are 6-0 this year when rushing for 100-plus yards as a team, and 2-3 when they don’t. And since 2001, the Patriots are 50-1 in the regular season when they have an individual 100-yard rusher.
Sunday was Michel’s third 100-yard game of the season, and the Patriots are 3-0, with wins over the Dolphins, Chiefs, and Jets.
“I think you look at times we’ve won, the running game has been good. The times we’ve lost, what’s happened? I think it’s pretty self explanatory there,” center David Andrews said. “I think we can be a good running team and we’ve just got to do a better job of penalties. Knock those down, and the sky’s the limit.”
The Patriots committed a season-high 11 (accepted) penalties, for 105 yards. But otherwise they didn’t have many negative plays and didn’t get behind the chains, which was a big issue in their loss to the Titans.
“Minus the penalties, I think we did a hell of a job,” left tackle Trent Brown said. “Just got to get those penalties in check, and we thought we would’ve had a 300-yard game today.”
The Patriots were able to create chunk plays with their run game — Michel had runs of 31 and 33 yards, and White had runs of 24 and 27 yards. The Patriots clearly saw something with the Jets’ defense, which allowed 212 yards rushing in their most recent game, a loss to Buffalo.
“Some people trying to do too much and over-jumping their gaps,” Jets coach Todd Bowles said.
The offensive line had a great day — Brady wasn’t sacked in 31 pass attempts, either — but Belichick made sure to credit Rob Gronkowski, James Develin, and the receivers for doing their part in the run game, too.
“You can’t run the ball with just one guy,” Belichick said. “You’ve got to block a lot of people and do a good job running and finishing our runs, so it’s a credit to everybody.”
Michel was the star of the game, and he was invited by the team to take the podium afterward. He left briefly in the third quarter after getting bent over backward, but he came back in the fourth quarter, and on his first play ran for 33 yards to set up his clinching touchdown, a 1-yard plunge with less than nine minutes remaining.
Michel tried to deflect the attention to his offensive linemen.
“They should be up here talking to you guys, because without them there wouldn’t be no running lanes,” he said.
But right tackle Marcus Cannon disagreed.
“No, no, no, he deserves it,” Cannon said. “He’s got to make the decisions out there. We all pulled together and tried to fix what was not working at first, and thank God we won.”