FOXBOROUGH — Something eye-catching has happened with Sony Michel this training camp, and it turns out there’s intent behind it.
Michel, a second-year running back, has been used as a pass catcher often this summer. According to running backs coach Ivan Fears, that’s an area where the Patriots wanted Michel to grow, and he has.
“Much, much improved,” Fears said. “Much better than he was last year. Last year I thought it was a lot for him. This year, boy he’s pretty good at it. He’s going to be very good at it, we’ve just got to keep him out there.”
Michel had an excellent rookie season running the ball, gathering 931 yards and six touchdowns in 13 games. He had only seven catches for 50 yards, though, mildly surprising for a player who was a dual threat in college and something that became one of the few predictable elements of the Patriots’ offense.
Last year, that offense was unpredictable overall because it took lighter and heavier formations and flipped their expected uses upside-down — they ran out of lighter formations and passed out of heavier ones more than most teams. There’s no better example than the clinching drive in the Super Bowl, when Tom Brady completed his most critical passes out of 22-personnel formations with two tight ends and two running backs.
Within that run game that powered the offense late in the year, though, there were some tells based on which players were on the field, even if the formations didn’t give up much information. When Michel was in the game, the Patriots would run 80 percent of the time. When James White was in, they would pass 80 percent of the time.
If Michel is now up to speed and ready to go in the passing game, that tell could be eliminated. With the addition of third-round running back Damien Harris, who can run and catch, the Patriots could have four versatile backfield pieces in White, Michel, Harris, and Rex Burkhead.
“That’s the whole key is to make it so we’re interchangeable,” Fears said. “Everybody looks at it and says they can do both. We’d like to be in that kind of mode where [defenses] have to worry about Sony catching the ball as well as running the ball. Sometimes it doesn’t work that way just the way the game plan sort of falls, the way the game falls, he doesn’t get too many balls in his direction. But I think you’ll find Sony doing very well in the passing game, and I bet you’ll find James and the rest of the guys doing very well in the running game.”
Even when he was used more one-dimensionally, Michel had a good season last year. The biggest factor, as always with him, will be health. Perhaps using him in the passing game could diminish a few of the big, bruising runs up the middle he’s asked to make, though the risk of aggravating his knee will always be present.
“The thing is to give him opportunity to do it, and it’s harder to do when sometimes he’s with us and sometimes there’s an injury situation,” Fears said. “Injuries have held him back more than anything else. He’s got what we want, it’s just a matter of being careful with how much we use him.”
On a conference call leading up to the Week 1 Patriots-Steelers game on “Sunday Night Football,” NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth was asked if he thought the Patriots’ defensive line could show even more exotic looks this season than last.
“It may be harder to get much more exotic than what they were,” Collinsworth answered. “I was kind of laughing when I was seeing that Michael Bennett was saying it was the first time he’d ever been the only guy with his hand on the ground in any formation.
“But, yeah, I do think that’s entirely possible, right? I think with the people that they have and the ability to move around.”
Bennett has been used as a single down lineman in training camp and joint practices. The Patriots have continued to practice their “amoeba” defense they used at times, mostly with success, last year, which features a single lineman with his hand on the ground and several other defenders roaming at various depths.
Collinsworth mentioned that the Patriots’ deep secondary, specifically having Stephon Gilmore’s abilities in the mix, allows the Patriots to get creative and take some risks up front given their faith in the back end of the defense.
Who plays and who doesn’t is a story line for every preseason game, but don’t take the fourth preseason game as solid evidence of who is going to make the team and who is not. If last year’s preseason finale is any indication, it’s not a good guide.
Last year, running backs Brandon Bolden and Mike Gillislee, receiver Riley McCarron, and punter Corey Bojorquez didn’t play in the fourth exhibition game at all and were cut. Offensive lineman Ted Karras and a slew of defenders — Nicholas Grigsby, Keionta Davis, Adam Butler, Geneo Grissom, Derek Rivers, Keion Crossen, J.C. Jackson, and Jason McCourty, who played safety — started and went on to make the 53-man roster. Many of them played a significant number of snaps. So watch, but watch with skepticism.
Old but reliable
Brady told NBC Sports Boston that he’s been wearing the same shoulder pads for 25 years, going back to his Michigan days.
“They’ve gotten reconditioned a little bit, but I think once you find something you like, you kind of stick with it,” he said. “I’ve always kind of liked the way they felt, the shape of them. People have tried to put me in a lot of other ones.”