<
>

Sony Michel's grip on Patriots' top RB spot could be slipping away

play
Are the Patriots better without Brady? (1:18)

Marcus Spears explains why the Patriots' offense is better with Cam Newton than it was with Tom Brady. (1:18)

Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. Job on the line: If Sony Michel wants to keep his job as the Patriots' No. 1 running back, it isn't a stretch to say he needs a big game Sunday against the Las Vegas Raiders (1 p.m. ET, CBS).

The combination of a disappointing performance in Week 2 against the Seattle Seahawks, coupled with on-the-rise Damien Harris (hand) eligible to be activated off injured reserve next week, has put Michel in a position where he needs a strong rebound.

His first carry of the game, in particular, was eye-opening for what could have been.

The offensive line opened a gaping hole along the left side, allowing Michel a clean entry to the second level of the defense with a cut-back run. The potential for big yardage was there if Michel could make cornerback Quinton Dunbar miss, with a huge swath of real estate in the middle of the field available to him.

The blocking couldn't have been drawn up, or executed, much better.

But Michel didn't capitalize, forgoing the middle in an attempt to beat Dunbar to the outside, which allowed the one other defender in the area -- defensive end Bruce Irvin -- to disengage his block and rip Michel down for a modest 3-yard gain.

There is no official stat for "yardage lost" on plays that actually gain positive yards, but a top-flight running back is potentially in the end zone on that type of play.

Michel, the Patriots' 2018 first-round pick, finished with 19 yards on seven carries (2.7 avg.), and while the lack of production can be attributed in part to blocking and an overall emphasis on the passing game, his first carry doesn't fall anywhere close to that category.

Which makes Michel's response against the Raiders a top storyline to followfollow, especially with Harris previewing his possible return to the roster as early as next week.

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, speaking of the running game in general, said: "We certainly have to do better than we did [against Seattle]. I think everyone knows that. That will be a huge focus for us."

2. Last-minute check-in: Patriots quarterback Cam Newton's weekly interview on "The Greg Hill Show" on sports radio WEEI in Boston has quickly become must-listen material because of his thoughtful answers and engaging personality. Of the several things I filed away from last week's interview was Newton saying he didn't hear from the Patriots until June, meaning this truly was a last-minute type of partnership, and not necessarily something that was part of the team's offseason master plan.

Former Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli said last week on NFL Network that coach Bill Belichick has always stressed using the entire calendar year to acquire players -- not falling into the routine of some other teams that might take the plunge in the initial stages of free agency before mostly shutting it down -- and this seems like a classic example.

It's almost like the Patriots made it through the virtual offseason and then asked themselves the questions, "Why is Newton still out there? Why don't we check on that?" The rewards for that patient approach have been impressive through two weeks.

3. Brighter spotlight on Cam: One point Newton made piqued my interest; he said he's never had more eyes on him as a result of playing in a larger media market. And he seems to be thriving.

"I've been probably the storyline here ever since I've been affiliated with the Patriots. That's understood, but yet at the end of the day, more eyes have been on me -- possibly more than in my career ever -- obviously because of the market, obviously because of the team, obviously because of other circumstances I don't necessarily care about or don't mind [replacing Tom Brady].

"When people see you do things they say you couldn't do, it becomes a shocker. But for me, I play this game and prepare for this game probably like no other player. Because I have to have endurance like a wide receiver, I have to have the physical toughness as a running back, and just the intuitiveness and being cerebral like a quarterback. So I wouldn't necessarily call myself a quarterback, I'd more or less call myself a football player that just so happens to play quarterback. When people see that, it's foreign to them ... but I've been playing like this for years."

play
2:27

Why Stephen A. was so impressed with Cam Newton vs. Seattle

Stephen A. Smith argues that Cam Newton's performance stood out more than Russell Wilson's despite the Patriots' loss.

4. Winovich grades out well: Through two weeks, Patriots second-year outside linebacker Chase Winovich is grading out among the NFL's best in ESPN's run-stop win rate for defensive ends/outside linebackers. Winovich has a 46% run-stop win rate, good for second best in the league behind Chicago's Khalil Mack, which is good company to keep and a reflection of some strength that Winovich has gained.

ESPN uses NFL Next Gen Stats player-tracking data to create the statistic. A defender can earn a win by doing any of the following: Beating his blocker so he's in better position to stop the runner; disrupting the pocket or running lane by pushing his blocker backward; containing the runner such that he must adjust his running lane; or recording a tackle within three yards of the line of scrimmage.

5. Brown's effect on Raiders? Former Patriots offensive tackle Trent Brown parlayed a terrific 2018 season into a four-year, $66 million free-agent contract with the Raiders, who flipped him from left tackle to right tackle. Brown injured his calf three plays into the 2020 season opener and hasn't played since (he has already been ruled out Sunday vs. New England). This comes after he appeared in 11 of 16 games last season. It's too soon to say the Raiders have buyer's remorse, but it seems fair to say Brown has yet to duplicate what he put together in New England. When Brown has played, he's been top-notch (a 91.9% pass-block win rate compared to 84.2% in New England), it's just been a matter of his availability.

6. No practice squad protections: Teams can protect up to four practice squad players per week, which stops other squads from poaching them, but Belichick hasn't elected to use any "protections" through three weeks. He has been tight-lipped as to why, although it might be as simple as not wanting to declare to the rest of the league whom he values most. Another possibility: By not restricting a player's opportunity formally, it potentially creates more loyalty for them to stick around when an opportunity with another team does present itself. And finally, perhaps he figures if a team attempts to sign a player off the practice squad, the Patriots can ultimately block it if they want to by promoting the player to the 53-man roster if it gets to that point.

7. Hurst homecoming: Sunday is a homecoming for second-year Raiders defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, who grew up in nearby Canton, Massachusetts, attended Xaverian Brothers High School (alma mater of Matt Hasselbeck, among others) and then went on to Michigan. Hurst's father, Maurice, played cornerback for the Patriots from 1989 to 1995 and is a member of the Patriots' All-1990s Decade Team. In two games for the Raiders this season, Hurst has played 42 snaps, totaled five tackles, a half-sack and three quarterback hits.

8. Guy's ties to Vegas: A matchup against the Las Vegas Raiders has a little added meaning to Patriots defensive tackle Lawrence Guy. He grew up in Las Vegas. "That community thrives off sports," Guy told NFL Network. "When we got the NHL team in there, you saw everybody come and support the league. You [talk] about dreams happening, when I was a kid, they always talked about getting a professional team. You can see the whole community enjoying it. It's not just 'The Strip.' It's a family-oriented city, and this brings another aspect to it."

9. Did You Know, Part I: With a win against the Patriots on Sunday, the Raiders would improve to 3-0 for the first time since 2002 when they were playing in Oakland. Prior to that, their last 3-0 start was in 1990 when they were playing in Los Angeles. Three potential 3-0 starts, three different cities.

10. Did You Know, Part II: The Patriots' single-season record for consecutive games with two or more rushing touchdowns by a player is three -- set by Horace Ivory (1978) and Curtis Martin (1995). With two rushing touchdowns Sunday against the Raiders, Newton would tie that mark. No NFL quarterback has rushed for multiple touchdowns in three consecutive games.