Over the course of an NFL season, problems crop up.
Teams get a read on what you’re doing. They get in the lab to see how they can counter it.
They get on the field and attack it, next thing you know you’ve got a developing issue.
For good teams, the problems are usually temporary. The coaching staff is smart enough to figure it out, the players have the acumen to understand the tweaks that need to be made and the skill to carry them out.
For the Patriots defense, the most pressing problem facing them currently is knocking down ballcarriers after they are handed the football.
They haven’t been “good” all year at stopping opposing rushing attacks but they were serviceable until the past two weeks.
But it’s suddenly gone from a reality the team can live with to a bona fide concern.
In the first half against Miami, the Dolphins ran the ball 12 times for 142 yards. There was a run-stuff on first down (followed by a 6-yard run on second-down) and a loss of 2 on a second-and-21 play just before the half. Otherwise, every run gained at least 4 yards.
Included in there were a first-and-10 run by Brandon Bolden for 54 yards and another first-and-10 run by Frank Gore that went for 36. There was also a 16-yard run on a second-and-10 by Gore.
A week earlier against the Vikings, carries of 32, 18 and 18 all came on first-and-10 plays.
The Patriots are allowing 4.8 yards per carry for the season. They’ve allowed 625 yards on 110 carries in their last five (5.68 yards per carry).
The last time they had a capable performance against the run was against the Bills and Derek Anderson (19 for 46). That was preceded by games against Kansas City and Chicago when those teams combined for 228 yards on 42 carries. Take out the Bills game because that was less than an NFL-ready offense that day and the Patriots have allowed 5.6 yards per carry in their past seven games.
On a Tuesday conference call, Bill Belichick was asked what he attributed the malaise to.
He noted it was a problem rooted in “team defense.”
“It starts with coaching so we’ve got to do a better job of coaching all aspects of it and executing it,” he stated. “It’s not one play. It’s a combination of our overall execution and consistency. It starts with the coaching.”
That’s not real illuminating.
De facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores was a bit more direct.
“The run game’s been something that we need to do a much better job of coaching, do a better job of playing,” he began. “We’ve got to do a better job of getting off blocks, got to do a better job with our angles in the secondary. It’s something we’re going to spend a lot of time on. It’s something we have spent a lot of time on. Teams are going to keep running the ball or attempting to run the ball until we do something to stop it. Obviously, that’s at the top of my priority list and our priority list as a defensive staff.”
This week, the Patriots play the Steelers. Pittsburgh has run for 206 yards in its past four games combined. Those yards came on 63 carries (3.2 yards per carry). Le’Veon Bell isn’t there. James Conner is hurt. This shouldn’t be that hard.
“It starts up front,” said former Patriots captain and linebacker Jerod Mayo on Quick Slants The Podcast. “It always starts up front. (Defensive tackle) Malcom (Brown) isn’t playing well. He was getting pushed out of there left and right. They have to fix it. And the way you fix it in the short term, the way you put a Band-Aid on that, what do you do?
You rock a safety down. You run pressures. And what happens after that? You’re leaving guys out on an island. So it’s like pick your poison.
“The D-Line is playing at an F level,” Mayo added. “Whether your run defense is good or bad, it starts at the front.”
Lawrence Guy and Trey Flowers have been the Patriots' best defensive linemen this season. Adam Butler has played well. But the work of the 6-2, 320-pound Malcom Brown and 6-2, 345-pound Danny Shelton has been forgettable.
Shelton, a disappointment in Cleveland, was acquired to be a replacement for Alan Branch. The mercurial, 6-6, 350-pound Branch joined the Patriots in 2014 as Vince Wilfork’s Patriots career was winding down. He was a more than adequate replacement for Big Vince.
Shelton can’t even be mentioned in the same sentence as Branch, who was occasionally dominant.
“We’ll practice to get it better,” promised Flores. “We’re on the players to get it better and I think they’ve got the mindset that they know they’ve got to get it. We’ve got to get that part of our defense. It’s got to be much better than it’s been, and hopefully we do that.
“It will start (Wednesday) in practice … We’ve talked about it, we’ve corrected it and we’ve just got to go out there and produce and simply play better in the run game... It comes back to fundamentals, technique, communication, playing physical and really as a team, just playing better run defense and obviously putting that on ourselves. It starts with me and us as coaches, and we’ll do everything in our power to right those wrongs.”
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