Friday, August 14, 2020

Patriots Sign Lamar Miller; Reaffirm Dedication To Running The Football

The reclamation projects just never stop in Foxborough.

On Sunday, the New England Patriots signed veteran journeyman(?) Lamar Miller and his surgically-repaired ACL to a one year contract – a surprise move given the strength and quality of the Patriots’ running back kennel, leaving all of us to wonder if the signing is a sign of trouble with third-year “lead” back Sony Michel.

Michel, of course, was placed on the team’s PUP list last week as he rehabs from foot surgery in the offseason, but we all assumed that second-year redshirt Damien Harris would be picking up Michel’s slack, with Rex Burkhead and James White providing a change of pace – and that most likely still is the case, despite Miller’s signing.

In fact, Miller may just be camp fodder unless he clearly out-performs one of the incumbents on the roster, with another option being placed on the injured-reserved list if he shows promise but isn’t quite ready to compete.

At his best, Miller is a crisp cutback runner between the tackles and has a second gear to get around the corner – and then has an extra gear once he breaks into the open field. The fastest back that came out of the 2012 NFL Draft, speed is his calling card. If his knee has fully healed and he regains his ability to cut against the grain, he offers more in the running game than Michel.

In fact, assuming Miller makes the 53-man roster, the Patriots are in better shape in the backfield than they were a week ago, and even then they were pretty stacked.

It is universally thought that the Patriots had one of the best running back depth charts in the league to begin with - even with Michel on the shelf – but now they have three similarly sized backs with decidedly different styles, plus the most effective passing back in the league, meaning that New England can now play the running game anyway you like it.

You want a slasher with elite speed, a threat to take it to the house on any touch? That’s Miller. You want a grinder who punishes linebackers and always gets the extra yard? That’s Harris. How about a guy who does a little of both? Yup, Burkhead – and even though all three are capable in the pattern, James White is dependable as they come wheeling out of the backfield.

Add all of that to the fact that they will be running behind one of the best zone-blocking schemes in the league and with a dual-threat quarterback running the entire show, what you get is a commitment to run the ball.

Of course, Newton is the catalyst with a skill set not seen in New England before. Let’s face it, Tom Brady was glued to the ground, but had decent elusiveness in the pocket - but more and more in the past couple of years, when the pass rush was closing in, he would simply take a seat and live to see another play…

…while Newton is an apparition, with the start and stop ability to leave would-be tacklers grasping at air. On reputation alone, defenders will have to account for Newton’s running ability on every play, his repertoire including RPO experience and a knack for scrambling out of trouble. But where his presence affects the running game is on the outside zone plays that Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels loves.

Newton is in his element In the outside zone. Where Brady would simply turn and hand off to his backs, Newton can and will employ elements of the double and triple options, so the need for a cutback runner with speed became paramount the moment Newton signed his Patriots’ contract – and that’s the reason Lamar Miller and his sub-4.4 speed now resides in Foxborough.

Actually, there is a lot to like about this year’s incarnation of the Patriots’ offense. Sure, there are a lot of variables in play – health and replacing players who have opted-out at the forefront – but if the universe unfolds in their favor, we could witness a renaissance of sorts, back to the days when the Patriots featured a powerful running game that sets up the passing game.

With head coach Bill Belichick being a rooted in the fundamentals of the game, I can’t wait to see how he shapes his offense when in his element – because there’s nothing more fundamental in football than running the football.

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