If the Patriots are to turn around their leaky run defense, Sunday seems like a very good place to start.
The Patriots entered their game against the Cowboys ranked 23rd overall in the NFL in run defense, allowing 117 yards per contest. The Patriots are starting to show a very dynamic play-making defense and it figures to get only better if the run defense starts to show improvement the way it did Sunday.
The Cowboys entered the game averaging 108 yards per contest and figured to take advantage of their powerful and big offensive line to run it down the throats of the Patriots. But a funny thing happened. The Cowboys were never able to get Joseph Randle, the aging Darren McFadden or Christine Michael going. The Patriots held the Cowboys to 100 yards on 24 carries, with only two carries of over 10 yards.
What was the big difference in the big turnaround? As is usually the case, it was a combination of factors, including a much improved defensive front at the point of attack that allowed the Patriots to take some chances and shoot strong safeties Patrick Chung and rookie Jordan Richards into gaps caused by pressure from the likes of Jamie Collins and Jabaal Sheard.
“We got a lot of support from the safeties in the running game, and Patrick played very well,” Bill Belichick noted in his Monday conference call. “He tackled well as he usually does. Patrick is one of the best tacklers on our team, but he has a real good sense of how to fit on those runs, when to shoot the gap, when to stay back and play over the top, that type of thing, and he’s a very good in-line tackler. He’s got good fundamentals and he wraps up well.”
Chung finished with seven tackles (five solos) while Richards had one solo tackle. What Belichick pointed out was that many of the same qualities that go into good run-stopping players are the same ones that you see in special teams coverage.
“Jordan is a little bit the same way,” Belichick added. “He has an instinctiveness for the running game that’s good, and he’s a strong kid that tackles well. On both those guys, I think you see a lot of those qualities that I was talking about, and you see them transfer to the kicking game. They both show up in the kicking game as well. The coverage units the same type of thing, guys that can run, avoid blockers, play with good leverage, play in space and tackle good runners with the ball, the returners in those situations. They both have those qualities and they did a good job for us. Our run defense was definitely better yesterday ‘ not perfect, but we made progress on it so that was good.”
What’s important to keep in mind, as Belichick noted Monday, is that if the front seven doesn’t apply and sustain pressure at the point of attack, by the time the safeties get to the line, there’s no gap to shoot through and blow up the run.
“That’s a position again similar to linebacker that I think really some of the physical testing and all just doesn’t do it justice. I mean, you talk about vertical jump and bench press and 40 speed and all that, when you’re playing safety or linebacker and you’ve got 15 bodies in front of you doing a lot of different things, play action, run, pull, misdirection, there are a lot of different things that can happen, a lot of schemes,” Belichick said.
“Some players are very quick at being able to sort that out and be moving at top speed and recognize exactly what’s going on and then other players who may have timed speed or great physical testing numbers but just aren’t able to mentally see everything and process it and sometimes even anticipate it and react to it that quickly. There is sometimes a big gap on that. It’s a very hard position to sometimes evaluate because there is an instinctiveness and awareness and just a kind of feel for all that’s going on that it’s a lot different than playing corner where sometimes you just lock on one man or you’ve got a two-to-one read or something like that.
“At safety you’ve got a lot of bodies and a lot of things to sort out ‘ same thing at linebacker. Yeah, the ability to recognize that and make the right decision quickly because if you make the wrong one and it’s a play action pass and the guy is behind you, you can give up a lot of yards in a hurry. Patrick and Jordan, they do a good job of that. Really, all of our safeties do. Tavon [Wilson], he does that well, too, and Devin [McCourty] and Duron [Harmon], even though they play back more than they play up, they all do a good job of that. [Safeties] coach [Brian] Flores does a good job of coaching that group. They react well.”