By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — It took a few weeks, but first-round running back Sony Michel now has his welcome to the NFL moment.
The 23-year-old running back out of Georgia had a bit of a rough landing in his first two career games, rushing for 84 total yards on 24 carries, while catching two passes for six total yards in two straight Patriots losses.
But on Sunday afternoon, with the team facing a potential 1-3 start to the season, the team leaned heavily on the rookie. And he delivered.
By the end of the day, Michel had his first 100-yard rushing day, his first NFL touchdown, and most significant of all, his first NFL victory.
“It’s always great to go out there, just play football and the ultimate goal is to go out there and get a win. That’s why we play the game,” Michel said. “My teammates do a great job of complimenting me to keep my confidence up. I’m around a great group of guys, so it’s amazing. I’m blessed to be around guys like James White, the offensive line and Tom [Brady] and them. It’s amazing.”
On 25 carries, Michel picked up 112 yards and scored a fourth-quarter touchdown, putting a bow on what was an outstanding home debut for the rookie. The Patriots won, 38-7, with Michel’s touchdown serving as the exclamation point on a victory that proclaimed the Patriots to still be the team to beat in the AFC East.
Michel looked good from the start on Sunday, as he followed up a nine-yard rush with a run for 13 yards and then a run for 14 yards on consecutive plays on the Patriots’ opening possession. In the second quarter, he picked up five yards on a second-and-1 rush, and later sprung free for a 23-yard pickup. On that drive, which came just before halftime, the Patriots handed the ball to Michel seven times. He picked up 39 yards and helped drain clock, as the Patriots executed a touchdown drive that lasted 5:31 and stretched the lead to 24-0 before the break.
“He’s a tough runner, he can catch the ball, he can block, he can pretty much do it all. I mean, he missed preseason, so he didn’t get a lot of those reps. So, the more he plays, the better he’ll get, and he wanted to come out there and attack the day from the first play. He played really well,” White said. “He may not look like the biggest guy, but he runs with his pads down and he gets those extra yards.”
The offense went with eight Michel runs in the third quarter, and early in the fourth quarter, Michel broke free around the left edge and scored his first career NFL touchdown.
It wasn’t just a statistically impressive performance. Michel ran the ball with confidence, patiently waited for lanes to open, and showed off an elite burst when breaking toward the line of scrimmage. He didn’t avoid contact, showed impressive footwork in dodging legs and bodies as he ran, and looked capable of withstanding some punishment.
“[He ran] really hard and broke some runs out there,” Brady said of the rookie. “I mean, that’s a stout defense, and we needed the run game to break some of those. So, I thought the line did a great job up front making some holes and it was a great day.”
Though the blocking — or lack thereof — was the biggest issue holding Michel back in Week 3, the performance vs. Miami was nevertheless an encouraging showing for a player out of whom much is expected in year one. And with Jeremy Hill gone for the year, the Patriots will be hoping that performances like Sunday’s become a common occurrence.