ATLANTA — In the Bill Belichick era, the history of lead running backs on the Patriots can be traced on one hand. In less than a year, Sony Michel has assumed that role.
One NFL great put him in the same sentence as possibly the best running back the Patriots have had in the past two decades.
“It really reminds of back when they had Corey Dillon, the way they played Corey Dillon,” said former Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson, now an analyst with the NFL Network. “That’s what Sony’s doing right now. He recognizes that’s the role he needs to play and he’s doing it well.”
It might be a bit premature to compare Michel to Dillon, who was one of the NFL’s best backs during his 10-year career (his last three with the Patriots). But their roles are certainly similar, and Michel hasn’t been fazed as a rookie.
Despite missing most of training camp and the first game of the season because of an injury, Michel has been everything the Patriots could have hoped. He’s been a workhorse in the playoffs, with 242 yards and five touchdowns on 53 carries in the two victories to help the Pats reach the Super Bowl.
With a room full of former NFL backs available during an NFL Network media session Wednesday in Atlanta, it was only right to ask their thoughts on Michel. And none was surprised by his immediate success.
“I love what I’ve seen out of Sony Michel,” Reggie Bush said. “When they drafted him, I knew it would be such a great fit. I knew that he was going to go on to have a great year because he was going to an organization that believes in running the football. He was going to an organization that believes in accountability.”
Tomlinson had similar thoughts when he saw the Patriots select Michel out of Georgia in the first round.
“I said, ‘Boy this is a perfect fit,’ because this is a guy, he just fits with the Patriots Way,” Tomlinson said. “He’s going to do his job, not worrying about what anyone else does. He’s tough-minded, a physical guy, team player, all those things, and so I knew Bill would be able to get the best out of Sony, but also that Sony would embrace the Patriots Way and being around Tom (Brady) and seeing how champions play.”
Terrell Davis, on the other hand, sounded like a proud dad. The Broncos great also went to Georgia, and as he watched Michel in the same backfield with Nick Chubb, he saw signs of his potential.
“Sony’s incredible,” Davis said. “He’s got an effortless kind of running style. What I enjoy with backs like him is that he doesn’t seem to have good power, but he does, and he’s got soft hands, understands the offense, understands what I call just basic football awareness. It’s hard, some backs just don’t have that, and Sony has that.”
Tomlinson thinks he has much more potential, too.
“I think Sony can actually develop into a three-down back,” Tomlinson said. “I know right now they don’t need him to be that, but when you think about what he did at Georgia, he could catch the ball out of the backfield, so I think eventually he’s going to become a three-down back they can lean on. … I think Sony will eventually take over the backfield.”
Michel will be another key in the Super Bowl. In the AFC Championship Game win against the Chiefs, the Patriots fed the ball to Michel 29 times as they established the run, set the tone early and dominated time of possession. Against a similarly high-powered offense in the Rams, the same approach would make sense.
Tomlinson stressed the importance of getting Michel and the ground game going early.
“I think it’ll be critical because the Patriots need to have their play-action game going,” Tomlinson said. “So obviously play-action works best when you’re able to run the football. But also, I think just to take some of the pressure off the third-down situations. You always want to be third and manageable. Everybody knows that. But Sony is critical to being third and manageable because he plays first and second down. So if they can have success on first and second down with Sony, I honestly think it’ll be very tough for the Rams to win the game.”