FOXBORO -- For three weeks, the Patriots run defense was embarrassed.
They allowed 7.3 yards per carry to the Vikings in Week 13. Against the Dolphins a week later, that number bumped up to 9.0 thanks to repeated breakdowns. In Pittsburgh, the Patriots showed some improvement, knocking their yards allowed per carry number all the way down to . . . 6.3.
They were arguably the worst run defense in the league. Bill Belichick, Brian Flores, Patriots players -- they all vowed that the run defense would improve. And those words would've rung hollow if they hadn't gotten stingier.
But they have.
Last week, the Bills averaged 4.0 yards per attempt and just 72 yards total. In a 38-3 beatdown of the Jets on Sunday, the Patriots allowed their division rivals to pick up only 3.5 yards per attempt on non-quarterback carries. (Sam Darnold rushed once for 28 yards when the Patriots lost contain in the first quarter.)
Trey Flowers was asked on Sunday if the team's struggles against the run in recent weeks bothered the Patriots.
"Definitely," he said. "Any time we fall short of our goals, fall short of playing physical and being that physically tough team, it bothers us, personally. We weren't necessarily thinking about what people on the outside were saying. We just took it personally. We knew what we had to fix and we knew how we had to fix it."
The Patriots made some personnel changes, getting Danny Shelton into the lineup, and giving game-day jerseys to players like Ufomba Kamalu and Derek Rivers but not Adrian Clayborn. The Patriots also got back to basics, refining their techniques and fundamentals, and results have followed.
Against the Jets, the Patriots had a dozen plays where they held Jets rushers to two yards or less. Flowers was in on four. Same went for Elandon Roberts. Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy, Danny Shelton, Deatrich Wise, Derek Rivers and Kyle Van Noy were all in on impressive plays at or near the line of scrimmage to keep the Jets in difficult down-and-distance situations.
The Jets were not a good running offense going into Sunday. They ranked 30th in yards per carry at 3.9. The teams the Patriots could see in the Divisional Round are certainly better in that regard.
Baltimore (whose offense is a throwback founded in the running game) and Houston rank near the middle of the pack in terms of running the football. The Chargers, meanwhile, averaged 4.8 yards per carry going into Week 17, giving them one of the league's most efficient running games.
Not knowing who they'll see in two weeks, the Patriots still came away pleased with what they've done against the run these last two weeks.
"Just coming into the end of the season," Flowers said, "to get that type of performance, understanding how we had to play, how we had to practice, how we had to come on Sunday, fundamentally and things like that, it's definitely big for us to practice well, prepare well and come out in the game and execute."
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