By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Detroit Lions’ all-around futility crushed them in a season-opening blowout loss. They continued to show some glaring flaws in Week 2. One of them was a shaky run defense – a sneaky-big area that the New England Patriots could exploit to massive effect on Sunday Night Football.
It’s going to be a tall order for Detroit to escape an 0-3 hole against a focused Patriots team coming off a loss. Tom Brady was none too pleased with the team’s offensive output against the Jacksonville Jaguars. So it’s fair to expect that he will be sharp on Sunday night.
But if the Lions’ run defense in the first two games is any indication, it’s also likely that Josh McDaniels makes a point to attack them on the ground. The Patriots would also like to get their run game going in general, averaging just 3.7 yards per rush (22nd in the NFL) through two weeks.
Two big plays from just last week, a 30-27 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, show where the Lions broke down big-time on the ground. The Patriots are one of the few teams in the league who have the personnel to pull off something similar.
Niners running back Matt Breida ripped off a 28-yard run on their first offensive play of the game, and he did it with the help of fullback Kyle Juszczyk and some creativity from a classic Shanahan zone blocking scheme. Getting a perfect pull block from left guard Laken Tomlinson after the faked jet sweep, Breida and Juszczyk invade a gaping hole created by Tomlinson, right tackle Mike McGlinchey, and tight end George Kittle. Juszczyk gets a mismatch in his zone and stonewalls cornerback Jalen Tabor, and Breida takes off, making tacklers miss at the second level and rumbling for extra yardage before Tabor catches back up to bring him down. Damage done.
Later in the game, Breida really made the Lions pay when he beat all three levels for a 66-yard touchdown. This is more a case of everyone blocking their man than anything too exotic. Juszczyk again makes an excellent block through the point of attack, overpowering safety Glover Quin. MicGlinchey levels up and stuffs strongside linebacker Christian Jones, Tomlinson cuts off momentum from Jarrad Davis, tight end Garrett Celek swallows up Romeo Okwara on the edge, and the Lions’ weakside rusher is rendered useless. Breida has a clean lane to the open field and zigzags through the secondary all the way to the end zone.
We’ll see if Marcus Cannon or LaAdrian Waddle can replicate McGlinchey’s play here. Right guard Shaq Mason will likely play a big role in these schemes as well. But these plays from the Niners show how Patriots fullback James Develin could have a surprisingly big impact on the offense in this game. He can be expected to execute similar blocks against smaller defensive backs, which could create openings for the Patriots’ running backs to break off 20-plus yards on the ground.
Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen would also be important on play calls of this type. If either of them can block on the edge, the Patriots will have a great chance to make things happen just by handing off to Rex Burkhead, Sony Michel, or James White.
Michel, in particular, could be primed for a breakout performance. He was mostly underwhelming against the Jaguars in his NFL debut, but there were some things to be encouraged about. He picked up a blitz with a nice chop block that could’ve led to a completion if Tom Brady didn’t rush his throw. The quarterback should gradually trust Michel more in pass protection roles as the season goes along.
Michel also didn’t fumble in 10 carries, which was a bit of a concern on him coming out of the draft. That will be the ultimate key to earning more snaps as the season progresses.
As a runner, Michel had a lot of zero-sum plays but also flashed some power and burst. He notably barreled for a 15-yard run to set up a Patriots touchdown in the red zone, showing up as the Patriots momentarily mounted a comeback. On a few plays that were broken up at the point of attack, he still powered through to turn no-gains into 3-4 yards. As long as Michel takes care of the football, he should eventually be the Patriots’ lead back on the ground moving forward and also get plenty of looks as a pass blocker. White will still be the team’s primary receiving back, but Michel clearly has the most raw ability as a pure runner.
Sunday night could be a big step toward Michel claiming a bigger place in the offense. Michel wasn’t quite “unleashed” last week, but he also wasn’t fully off the injury report. Now he is, and the Patriots could finally be ready to truly feature their prized rookie.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.