FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Entering their bye last week, the repeated refrain coming out of the Patriots’ locker room was a need for more balance and consistency on offense.
New England struggled with both over a four-game stretch in late October and early November as tight end Rob Gronkowski and rookie running back Sony Michel each missed time because of injuries. Gronkowski sat out three of the four games nursing a sore back and ankle. Michel missed back-to-back games with a knee injury.
Both were back in the starting lineup and instrumental in the Patriots’ 27-13 road win over the Jets on Sunday . After making a lackluster return against Tennessee in New England’s final game before its bye week, Michel ran for 133 yards and a touchdown. It marked his third 100-yard effort of the season. Gronkowski also impressed, catching three passes for 56 yards and his first touchdown since Week 1.
While the performances came against a struggling Jets team, they are welcomed signs of progress to quarterback Tom Brady with the playoff-contending Minnesota Vikings set to visit New England this week.
Brady said he is hopeful that the run game, which produced a season-high 215 yards against New York, will continue to be a consistent part of the offense the remainder of the season.
“Hopefully we can keep it going,” he said during his weekly appearance on Boston’s WEEI radio on Monday. “When you can count on that many yards of production, or 100, 150 yards of production in the run game, then you are looking at 250, 300 (yards) in the passing game and that is a good day.”
The 215 rushing yards was New England’s highest output since it gained 246 yards at Indianapolis on Nov. 16, 2014.
The run game could get even more help soon.
The Patriots announced late Monday that they have activated Rex Burkhead from injured reserve.
Burkhead had been on IR with a neck injury since Sept. 26.
To make room on the 53-man roster, New England released offensive lineman Matt Tobin.
Brady’s ability to stretch the field in the passing game was affected without Gronkowski in the lineup. He was clearly excited to have him back, targeting the 6-foot-6 tight end seven times against the Jets.
Brady finished the day an efficient 20 of 31 for 283 yards and two touchdowns. Gronkowski was the recipient of Brady’s second-longest pass of the game, a 34-yard TD pass in the first quarter .
“It felt good,” Gronkowski said. “I’ve just been putting the work in the last couple of weeks, whatever it was, to get back and now I just feel like I can keep on improving week in, week out now and do what I have to do to help the team.”
Brady was facing a heavy pass rush up the middle on the play and was hit as he released the ball.
He said his trust in Gronkowski’s ability played into his decision to throw the ball over the middle into double coverage.
“Absolutely,” Brady said. “I think those are certain ones where Gronk is probably the only tight end in the league that can make that play. He played a great game.”
The Patriots had relied on creative ways to make up for Michel’s recent absence, even using receiver Cordarrelle Patterson at running back in one game.
Michel averaged 6.3 yards per carry against New York. It forced the Jets to respect the run, which in turn allowed Brady to break down the defense with play-action passes.
It also opened opportunities for his teammates. James While, who is usually most productive catching passes out of the backfield, carried nine times for a career-best 73 yards.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick said one of the understated part of Michel’s game is the power he runs with at 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds.
It will be needed against a Minnesota defense that is allowing just 22 points per game and 314 yards per game.
“Sony’s got very good balance, good lower body leg strength and he’s a strong, strong guy that can make yards against, I would say, bigger tacklers,” Belichick said. “You even see some of the defensive linemen and linebackers that tackle him and he’s a lot of times able to push forward for an extra yard or 2.”
Michel said he likes mixing it up in the pile.
“We want to be physical. When you’re physical, you can run the ball, you can throw the ball,” he said. “It’s almost like you control the line of scrimmage and do what you want to do.”