The Patriots running game was arguably the strength of the offense in the playoffs a season ago. Through the first half of 2019, that hasn't been the case.
Sony Michel, who rambled his way to six postseason touchdowns last winter while racking up 336 yards rushing yards in three game, has been stymied thus far this year. Michel averages just 3.3 yards on 140 attempts and has just 464 yards at the midway point.
But while his production has sagged in his second year, his coaches don't necessarily put all the blame on him. An offensive line in flux due to injuries is part of the story as well.
"I'm happy he's still alive," veteran running backs coach Ivan Fears said on Monday. "I'm happy he's doing a great job. He's still pretty healthy. He's playing well, in my mind. He's doing a lot of good things, and like everybody, he's got his moments that he's hurting us. He's making a mistake too. He's got to correct those mistakes, be a little bit more consistent in the things he's doing, which will fit in with what everybody else is doing. And hopefully, we'll be more productive overall.
"But I thought he ran hard this weekend. He was running the ball well. The good news for us is [offensive coordinator] Josh [McDaniels] is continually calling the run game, giving us a chance, and that's keeping us a little bit balanced. You want it to be more productive, but at least we're balanced right now. And we've got to keep that up."
Michel's production is down but the blocking hasn't necessarily been up to par either. Dante Scarnecchia, the Patriots highly respected offensive line coach, acknowledged some of the problems and pointed the finger at himself.
"I think it's everything. I have to coach a lot better than I've been coaching so let's start with that," Scarnecchia said. "We have to do things a lot better than what we've been doing.
"I know what I really believe in and we're not seeing enough of what I believe in out there. So, I'm not getting my message across and I think I have to do a lot better job than what I have been doing."
With center David Andrews out for the season and second-year tackle Isaiah Wynn still a couple of weeks from being eligible to return off IR, the guys up front haven't been consistent. Right guard Shaq Mason missed the Browns game, stripped Scarnecchia of three starters on Sunday.
"I think every year is a challenge," Scarnecchia said. "Certainly we've been in situations like this before. I just think it's part of plying the game of football in the National Football League. You have guys that get hurt for periods of time. That's nothing new, and you just put the next guy in there and get going and try to do as good as you can do.
"They're going out there and trying to do the best they can and they work really hard. I'm grateful for every guy we have in our offensive line group. They all prepare very hard every week and they go out there and try to do the best they can and I'm grateful for that."
Even though Michel hasn't had many gaping holes to run through, Fears also believes the back could do a better job of maximizing the opportunities he has had.
"That's part of Sony, his decisions," Fears said. "He can't take a chance and say, 'I'll bounce this thing' or go east and west all day. He's got to frigging get downhill. Nothing there, get downhill and run through somebody and let's go. All of that's part of it."
In terms of improvements on the horizon, Scarnecchia said he didn't know when Wynn would return to practice. The 2018 first-round pick is eligible to begin practicing this week and could be on the field on Wednesday. The earliest he could return to the lineup would be Week 12 against Dallas.
Scarnecchia also said rookie third-round pick Yodny Cajuste, who has been on the non-football injury list all season, is "probably not ready to do anything and probably won't be until next year."
Rex Burkhead, who missed three games with a foot injury, returned against Cleveland and could offer a change of pace from Michel.
While there's clearly been some good and bad, overall Fears seems pleased with his second-year back.
"I'm very happy with Sony," he said. "Let's put it that way. I'm very happy with Sony. I'll leave it there."