Back: Two Backs in New England

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Sony Michel had the first preseason game off, which is fine. The Patriots know what they got in him. Michel doesn’t have to prove anything.

Rookie Damien Harris also had the night off, which says a lot. It means Harris is a lock to make the team.

And to take touches from Michel.

Count on it. Bill Belichick doesn’t use third round selections on players that won’t play immediately.

Michel probably will get the majority of the carries in 2019, but have no doubt that Harris will cut into Michel’s workload. If all works out well, Belichick will have a deep, productive backfield because of competition.

How many carries Michel and Harris will get will be determined on a game-by-game basis. The more effective runner gets the bigger share in the second half. This play the hot hand approach isn’t new to Belichick and the Patriots.

In 2006 the Patriots spent a first round selection on Laurence Maroney to be Corey Dillon’s understudy for a season. The workload was almost even and the production was excellent: Dillon 199 carries, 812 yards, 13 touchdowns; Maroney 175-745-6.

Five years later New England selected Stevan Ridley (87-441-1) in the third round to eventually replace BenJarvus Green-Ellis (181-667-11).

And in 2013 Ridley (178-773-7) was paired with LeGarrett Blount (153-772-7) as New England acquired Blount via a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

These two backs backfields resulted in good production. In each case they combined for 1,000-yard seasons, at least 12 touchdowns, and no less than 4.1 yards per carry. The team totals were also quite robust as well:

Backfield - Carries - Yards - TD - Avg

Dillon + Maroney - 374 - 1,557- 19 - 4.1

2006 Team Totals - 499 - 1,969 - 20 - 3.9

Green-Ellis + Ridley - 268 - 1,108 - 12 - 4.1

2011 Team Totals - 438 - 1,764 - 18 - 4.0

Ridley + Blount - 331 - 1,545 - 14 - 4.6

2013 Team Totals - 470 - 2,065 - 19 - 4.4

Change the names and the season and you have an idea of what Belichick hopes the Patriots do with Michel and Harris in 2019.

New England leaned on the running game more in 2018 to ease the demands on Tom Brady. The Patriots offense is built to do so again, thanks to an imposing offensive line and by adding Harris into the mix. Michel was great last year as he averaged 4.5 yards per carry. He could be even better this year.

Michel finished the season strong, averaging 112 yards and two scores through the playoffs. Missing three regular season games and most of a fourth might had helped, but if Harris chips in, both Michel and Harris can stay fresh all season long.

And by taking turns pounding away, opposing defenses will wear down by the fourth quarter, giving the Patriots opportunities to break big plays.

The best part of a two-back approach is the ability to switch styles based on effectiveness. If Michel’s shiftiness gives opponents fits in the first half, they could be too gassed to get a hand on him by the fourth quarter. Or if the D is wilting under Harris’ thumping, it might take just a few more carries before the defense ruptures.

And less carries per game means less carries per season, which means two fresh running backs for the playoffs.

On paper this should work, if Michel and Harris don’t fight for carries. The good news is they shared the load during their college careers. It’s probably not a coincidence. Belichick had to have that in mind when he drafted them.

How much we see of Michel and Harris this preseason is unknown, but a heavy dose of the duo is expected during the season.

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