Film Review: Sony Michel Is Good Again

In a year full of surprises, one of the most shocking may be that Sony Michel is once again an effective runner
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The natural state of the universe is entropy -- occasionally we are able to witness a level of chaos, dysfunction, and patheticness that cannot be surmised in currently existent words. In my hometown, we have therefore coined this phenomenon as "jealing." What New England Patriots fans had to sit through on Monday night against the Buffalo Bills was jealing in its purest, most elegant form.

Despite the all-around tragic performance by the Patriots, Monday's 38-9 loss may have revealed the unlikeliest of bright spots: Sony Michel seems to have found his groove again. 

Michel rushed for 69 yards on 10 attempts for an outstanding 6.9 yards per carry -- this is the second week in a row that Michel has shown staggering efficiency carrying the ball, as he ran for 74 yards on 10 carries for 7.4 yards per carry against the Miami Dolphins last week.

More impressive than Michel's stat line is his obvious improvement on film. During his rookie campaign, Michel thrived when running out of I-Formation and offset I-Formation; Monday night saw the third-year back returning to his roots. Michel took seven of his 10 carries out of I-Formation and one carry out of offset I-Formation. He gained all 69 of his rushing yards on these eight carries, gaining no yards on his two carries out of shotgun formation.

Michel's improvement can be boiled down to a single word: decisiveness. Michel demonstrated both elite vision and decisiveness in college and his rookie year. His sophomore slump can be attributed to a combination of not having James Develin as a lead blocker and subsequently overthinking running lanes to compensate. 

The last two games, it seems that Michel has finally re-committed to the "one-cut" approach that he was known for throughout college and his rookie year. A "one-cut" running back is able to scan developing running lanes after a handoff while running laterally, and is able to make a single vertical cut into an open running lane; this approach relies on decisiveness and vision, two of Michel's strengths. Michel's struggles over the last year stemmed from his hesitance to hit open lanes and finish through contact, which is a detrimental mindset to a player who takes a majority of his handoffs in play calls that favor a one-cut approach. 

A return to this running style means Michel has been far more willing to take easy yardage in front of him than to play "hero ball" and try take every single handoff to the house -- ironically, this running style has led him to break more long runs in recent weeks. 

For example, Michel saw a combined 50 yards on two weak crack toss plays called out of 21 personnel I-Formation:

Play 1: 21 Personnel, I-Formation, Crack Toss Weak

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This 2nd and 7 play to Michel came on the first drive of the game. New England catches the Bills off guard with the playcall, and Buffalo's linebackers pursue too far outside. Michel is able to read Jakob Johnson's sealing downfield block, and cuts the ball upfield. In open space, Michel is able to put an effective, albeit inefficient juke on safety Micah Hyde, which allows him to net a few more yards before being brought down by safety Jordan Poyer. Michel does the best he can in the open field with his physical tools and is able to show decisive running with improved elusiveness.

Play 2: 21 Personnel, I-Formation, Crack Toss Weak

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On this 3rd and 2 play in the second quarter, Michel once again takes the crack toss left to the far side of the field. He makes his sharp one cut right behind Justin Herron's block attempt and is able to jump over the diving defender near the first down marker. He then follows Joe Thuney's downfield block for more yardage. Michel shows off the contact balance that he was known for in college, and spins out of the shoulder tackle from the linebacker shooting downfield. Once he is wrapped up by the safety, Michel continues to fight for extra yardage. In this one play alone, Michel breaks two potential tackles and gains about 20 yards after contact.

This last play is a more direct run between the tackles, and it epitomizes Michel's improvements in recent weeks. 

Play 3: 21 Personnel, Offset I-Formation, FB Power

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The play is a seemingly unspectacular six yard run on 2nd and 2 in the second quarter. Wide receiver Jakobi Meyers motions into a tight split right before the snap, and he combo blocks the blitzing safety Poyer with Johnson's help. Michel takes the snap and immediately sees the developed lane, as well as the linebacker veering into the gap. In the past, Michel may have cut this ball to the outside lane in hopes of breaking off a larger run, but on this particular play Michel simply lowers his pad level and braces for contact. Because of this improved decisive mentality, Michel is able to get four yards after contact through sheer will -- this is considered an excellent run and is exactly the type of play that fires up an offensive line. Michel turning a two-yard run into a six-yard run is noteworthy because his greatest struggle throughout his career has been his inability to create his own yards.

Final Thoughts:

While Damien Harris will deservedly be the bellcow for the Patriots moving forward, Michel has managed to put together a film reel late in the season that may very well have given his career a second wind. 

It's worth mentioning that many of the play designs run in this game were actually meant for Harris -- if the Patriots decide to keep both Harris and Michel, they may face versatility issues for the offense, since the two backs would essentially be filling the same role and running style. Whether or not Michel is a part of New England in 2021, he is certainly demonstrating that he is a viable No. 2 running back in the NFL.