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Patriots struggling to run the ball effectively without Sony Michel

Did the LA Rams steal away New England’s best running back?

Miami Dolphins Vs. New England Patriots At Gillette Stadium Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

How does a team prepare well in order to run the ball effectively in the NFL? Don’t ask the Houston Texans.

The Texans entered the season with arguably the most experienced backfield in the league. Starter Mark Ingram has three 1,000-yard campaigns on his resume. Backups Phillip Lindsay and David Johnson have combined for six seasons with at least 1,000 total yards. For additional comfort, Rex Burkhead is playing in his ninth NFL season.

Through five games, Houston ranks 32nd in yards per carry and only two teams have fumbled the ball more often than the Texans.

Of course, running the ball effectively takes more than a talent injection at running back. Some would even say that “talent” at running back is even the least-important variable you need to consider, regardless of whether or not that opinion flies in the face of today’s leading rushers and most effective rushing teams (Browns, Cowboys, Titans). But Houston GM Nick Caserio, a 20-year veteran of the Patriots front office, clearly felt that the right combination of talent at running back could somewhat overcome a lack of quality players at quarterback, receiver, tight end, and along the offensive line.

Clearly he was wrong.

It is perhaps that same juggling of running backs on the roster that has plagued his former team through five weeks as well. The Patriots parted ways with Burkhead after four seasons this year, then drafted Rhamondre Stevenson out of Oklahoma in the fourth round. New England was already sorting through a backfield that included 2018 first round pick Sony Michel, 2019 third round pick Damien Harris, and James White, a player who had over 900 total yards just two seasons ago.

The Patriots were also welcoming back Brandon Bolden after opting out in 2020, and undrafted free agent J.J. Taylor, an addition last summer.

When Bill Belichick evaluated every running back on his roster in training camp, it became clear to him soon enough that New England would be set at the position in 2021, even without Michel. So the Patriots sent Sony Michel to the LA Rams in exchange for a fifth and sixth round pick, one of which could convert to a fourth rounder depending on LA’s compensatory rewards next year.

CBS Sports gave New England an A grade for the deal:

It isn’t necessarily an embarrassment of riches, but the Patriots immense depth at running back ultimately made Michel expendable.

The trade of a former first-round pick for what could be a fourth-round pick doesn’t typically result in a “A” grade. But in this situation, the Patriots were able to get value from a player who would have probably been third or even fourth on the depth chart, if he made the team at all. Furthermore, the Patriots received value from a position that is hard to trade, as running backs have a notoriously short shelf life. The trade probably won’t be remembered by many outside of New England and Los Angeles, but it’s just another example of the talent of Bill Belichick the general manager. The only potential loss here is depth if the Patriots suffer numerous injuries at the running back position.

The Rams received a “B+” in the same article, but right now I think they should feel confident that they made the move at the right time. If things continue to follow the trend of the first month of the season, you might even be able to argue that LA “won” the trade.

The main reason that the tide of the trade narrative could turn seems to be unearned confidence in Damien Harris.

Harris’s first start with New England came against the Chiefs in Week 4 of last season, a 26-10 loss in which he rushed for exactly 100 yards on 17 carries. And 41% of Harris’s yards that day came on this single play in which he simply ran the ball as fast as he could through a wide open lane:

Not to say that Harris wasn’t “fine” that day, but that’s all that he was and the Patriots never stood a chance to beat a Chiefs team that wasn’t really concerned if New England could run the ball “OK” because they knew that Cam Newton couldn’t pass it at all.

Damien Harris finished his 2020 season with 691 yards on 137 rushing attempts but his best game came in a Week 10 win over the Ravens: 22 carries, 121 yards.

Harris had a couple of nice runs to open the second half and that setup the Patriots to score another touchdown and increase their lead over Baltimore. However, Harris did not show up at all in the fourth quarter and New England was lucky to keep its lead going until the clock showed all zeroes:

Damien Harris’s last five carries all came on first down and he gained a total of -2 yards on those five runs. His longest first down run in that series was 0 yards.

The Patriots still decided to enter the 2021 season with Harris as the starter, with James White, Brandon Bolden, J.J. Taylor, and Rhamondre Stevenson as backups ... and Sony Michel with the LA Rams.

Though Harris rushed for exactly 100 yards in Week 1’s loss to the Dolphins (Harris has four career 100-yard efforts but only one of those games is over 102 yards), he has still been one of the NFL’s worst starting running backs in the first month of the season. In the last four games, Harris has 40 carries for 130 yards, averaging 3.25 yards per carry with only five catches for 29 yards. He has also lost two fumbles, including one against Miami and one this past Sunday against the Texans.

Two weeks ago against the Buccaneers, Harris had four carries and he finished with -4 rushing yards.

Three weeks ago, Sony Michel got his first and only start with the Rams and it also came against Tampa Bay: 20 carries, 67 yards, three catches for 12 yards.

Though Michel also struggled against the same team, the Bucs are the best run defense in the NFL and Michel wasn’t completely lost. He even had a few nice runs against Tampa and helped LA run down the clock in a way that Harris was unable to against Baltimore in 2020.

Damien Harris’ last 4: 40 carries, 130 yards, 3.25 YPC, 5 rec, 29 yards, 1 FL, five carries of 10+ yards, 13 carries for 0 or negative yardage

Sony Michel, 2021: 45 carries, 163 yards, 3.6 YPC, 4 rec, 20 yards, 1 FL, five carries of 10+ yards, eight carries for 0 or negative yardage

Perhaps the most telling stat is the negative yardage plays. Already this season, Harris has four plays where he lost more than two yards: -3, -4, -4, and -5. And each of those four plays came in a different game, so it is not as though Harris was just “having a bad day.”

Sony Michel hasn’t lost more than 2 yards on any single play and he only has three plays total that went for negative yardage. Harris has nine such plays.

Does this mean that New England can just go back to their “awesome depth”? Apparently not. Stevenson is second on the team with 12 rushing attempts over two games, followed by White with 10 over three contests. Bolden has seven carries and Taylor has four.

Meanwhile, the Rams already had to call upon Michel for help several times this season. He has filled in for an injured Darrell Henderson on two different mid-game occasions already, and he started in place of Henderson in Week 3 vs the Bucs. With a number of high profile running backs already taking a place on injured reserve this season, LA can at least count themselves fortunate to have added Michel late in the offseason and that even if you never want to see a player go down, at least Cam Akers gave the team time to evaluate options.

Who knows, maybe this rushing production really all does come down to blocking and play calling and defense and quarterbacking. Maybe LA could have gotten the same work done with C.J. Anderson again. We’ll never be certain. But as things stand, it would be difficult to argue that the Patriots actually had the starting talent and the depth at running back that was posited at the time of the trade.

And the Rams are surely happier to have Sony Michel than to not have him.