While the Patriots defense has been trending up the last few games, I was surprised to see they had fallen from a mid-season 23rd-ranked run defense to 30th in Football Outsider’s DVOA, an analytic that weighs situation and opponent. This is of course about when Dont’a Hightower went on IR, so some drop-off should be expected but it hadn’t been all that glaring to me recently.
If they do have a bad run defense it hasn’t hurt them in the win column. Last week against the Bills they gave up their second-highest yardage total this season (183) and held them to three points. Opening night against the Chiefs (185) remains the highest and only time a team actually ran to victory over New England.
Yardage wise they’re 26th, yards-per-carry they’re 32nd.
So is this a real flaw for the Pats’ defense? Will LeVeon Bell be able to exploit it? Could the Steelers ride that to victory? Miami got a season-low 67 yards on the ground vs. New England and doesn’t look like they’ll do much more this Monday night.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the bigger running plays against and how much impact they had on the game.
Kareem Hunt — Week 1 — 58 Yards — KNOCKOUT PUNCH
The Pats chances for a win hung by a thread with just over four minutes to play, down 35-27. This toss sweep went 58 yards and would be a recurring theme this season as offense’s aimed to expose the lack of athleticism at linebacker. But yes, this was week one and we’ve come a long way since this point. And so have the Chiefs…
Melvin Gordon — Week 8 — 87-Yard TD — Only 45 other rushing yards
The longest run of the year belongs to Melvin Gordon with this 87-yarder. It’s not a toss sweep, but it’s the same concept out of the shotgun. Gordon doesn’t get the edge like Hunt did, but he finds a crease as everyone gets blocked.
Worth mentioning that outside of these runs by Hunt and Gordon, no rush has been longer than 28 yards against the Pats’ defense. They’ve given up just six runs between 20 and 30 yards. So the big plays have been limited.
Marshawn Lynch — Week 10 — 25 yards — Only 42 other rushing yards
This was one of the few good plays the Raiders got against the Patriots defense but I think it illustrates a bit of where the Pats are susceptible. The linebackers are too slow reacting and both are blocked. The defensive tackle goes inside while the end is sealed off. Marsh didn’t lose the edge, but with the secondary in man coverage and Patrich Chung, usually the guy who cleans these up, on the opposite side, Lynch had open field ahead as Butler and Gilmore were effectively blocked.
LeSean McCoy — Week 14 — 18 yards — Can’t Throw Can’t Win
This one from last weekend doesn’t come out of the shotgun but it’s still a toss sweep, just out of a power look. The tight end motions out wide and David Harris follows him taking the linebacker out of the box. Gilmore is blocked back into Elandon Roberts and Eric Lee is sealed off on the edge, looking very much like the practice squadder he was a couple week ago.
Some recurring themes here — linebackers that have trouble getting out to the edges and cornerbacks who are more easily blocked than they should be. Dont’a Hightower’s presence is sorely missed and I also think that Logan Ryan‘s sure tackling is missed as well.
The real test will come in two weeks with LeVeon Bell. Elandon Roberts and David Harris will be huge focal points. As will Kyle Van Noy if he’s fully healthy.
Roberts has shown remarkable development this season, but his ceiling is still being determined. He’s getting every chance there is to be a three-down linebacker. Harris has slowed down, but still makes some sporadic plays. They really need Van Noy back full-time asap.
There is no hiding the inexperience on the edge of the defense. Rookies Dietrich Wise and Eric Lee were practically every-down players against the Bills. They will have big targets on their backs. Again, Trey Flowers is badly needed.
Yes, the Patriots defense has improved immensely over the course of this season, but they’ve often played with favorable game conditions. If an opponent gets a lead on them in the second half, will the run defense be exposed? Similar to 2015 in Denver, when CJ Anderson delivered the knockout blow on a toss sweep of his own?
We’ll just have to wait and see how the games unfold, but I’m very curious to see them put in a tough spot like that.