By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots’ ground game was virtually non-existent last weekend in Jacksonville. Sony Michel’s NFL debut was underwhelming. Rex Burkhead, fresh off clearance from concussion protocol, barely played. James White was ineffective as a rusher. Combined, the trio ran for 67 yards on 20 carries, an average of 3.35 yards per carry. Playing from behind for almost the whole game, the Patriots were unable to prioritize the running game.
But all of that should change this weekend in Detroit when the Patriots go up against a very vulnerable Lions rushing defense. With so much talk and conversation centered on the newly acquired Josh Gordon this week in Foxboro, it’s the Patriots’ trio of running backs that will be actually making an impact on Sunday night’s game.
The numbers so far for Detroit’s rush defense are downright grisly. Granted, it’s just two games, but here’s where Detroit ranks in the following defensive categories:
Rush yards per game: 32nd (179.5)
Rush yards per attempt: 31st (5.6)
Rushing TDs: T-28th (3)
Longest run allowed: 31st (66 yards)
That is some rough stuff for Matt Patricia’s and Paul Pasqualoni’s defense, and it’s not as if the Lions have faced any of the league’s elite backs just yet.
In Week 1, the duo of Isaiah Crowell and Bilal Powell combined to rush for 162 yards on 22 carries — a ridiculous 7.4-yard average per rush. Crowell crossed the goal line twice, the second of which came on a 62-yard run late in the fourth quarter.
Perhaps such a breakdown could be attributed to being dispirited, though. That 62-yard touchdown run did, after all, come with a minute left in a 41-17 game. But the results in Week 2 vs. San Francisco don’t help to provide any such excuse for Detroit’s defense.
Sunday in San Francisco, the Lions’ run defense was even worse than the season debut. Matt Breida — who ran for 465 total yards and 2 TDs in his rookie season last year — rushed for 138 yards and a touchdown on just 11 carries on Sunday vs. Detroit. Alfred Morris also ran for 48 yards on 14 carries for the Niners, making it 186 yards on 25 carries for the Niners’ two running backs.
(Perspective: Breida had averaged 4.4 yards per rush and 30.1 yards per game in his career before averaging 12.5 yards per rush and going for 138 yards vs. Detroit last week.)
Given how porous that run defense has been through 120 minutes of football, it figures to be the central area of attack for Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady. And Burkhead, White and Michel figure to be the greatest beneficiaries.
That in turn ought to open up some opportunities for Brady in the passing game. The Lions do rank fourth in passing yards allowed, but that’s due in large part to the Jets starting five drives in Detroit territory in Week 1. In Week 2, the 49ers also started one drive at the Lions’ 16-yard line and another drive at the Lions’ 26-yard line. The Jets and Lions scored on six of those seven drives.
(That’s partially why the Lions are currently tied for the worst scoring defense in the league, at 39 points per game.)
In terms of passing yards per attempt, the Lions have been awful, ranking 28th at 8.6 yards. They’ve allowed four touchdown passes (15th in the league) and they have just one interception. In terms of opponents’ passer rating, they rank 30th in the NFL, at 117.7.
Yet while the opportunities should be plentiful for the passing game, a dedicated focus to running the ball brings with it a twofold benefit. For one, it obviously can lead to a lot of yards and a lot of red zone opportunities. But secondly, it helps to control possession and keep Detroit’s own passing game off the field.
For all of the Lions’ woes — Matthew Stafford’s four-interception night vs. the Jets at the top of the list — the passing offense has been good. Stafford’s completed 61.6 percent of his passes for 633 yards thus far, with four touchdowns and five interceptions. The INTs, quite obviously, have been atrocious for Stafford, but the Lions’ passing offense has been more than functional. (Stafford’s also only been sacked twice.)
And given how much trouble the New England secondary had vs. Jacksonville, the prospects of minimizing the opportunities for Kenny Golladay (13 receptions, 203 yards, 1 TD), Golden Tate (14 receptions, 188 yards, 1 TD), and Marvin Jones Jr. (8 receptions, 108 yards, 1 TD) has to be appealing for Bill Belichick.
Obviously, with nearly 90 percent of the season left to be played, a lot will change. Detroit’s rushing defense may end up being passable by season’s end. But right now, it’s looking like it ought to be a big week for the trio of Burkhead, White and Michel.