Since Vince Wilfork went down against the Falcons, the Patriots run defense has struggled to maintain order in the middle of the field.
In the eight games since Wilfork’s season-ending Achilles injury, New England has allowed an average of 154.75 yards per game on the ground. The loss of fellow defensive lineman Tommy Kelly and linebacker Jerod Mayo to season-ending injuries has added to the drama -- entering Monday’s game, the Patriots have allowed 138.2 rushing yards per game for the season, 31st in the league.
On Sunday against the Texans, the Patriots used a variety of combinations at defensive tackle, including youngsters Chris Jones, Joe Vellano and Sealver Siliga, as well as veteran Isaac Sopoaga. They even did some shuffling at linebacker, trying to rotate a series of bodies through in hopes of slowing things down. But not much worked, as the Texans became the eighth straight team to rush for at least 100 yards on the Patriots.
While much of the yardage needs to be place in a proper context -- frankly, against the Broncos, it made sense for the Patriots to yield yards on the ground, especially when you consider the other option -- it’s clear the Patriots have an issue when it comes to run defense.
But is it the sort of problem that would inhibit a possible postseason run? Recent history tells us that it’s certainly possible for the Patriots to win the Super Bowl with a below average run defense. The last four Super Bowl champions all allowed at least 115 yards per game on the ground, and all of them were in the bottom half of the league when stacked against their contemporaries. (It’s a group that includes the 2012 Ravens, who were 20th in the league with 122.8 rushing yards allowed per game.) History also indicates that if you’re a team with Super Bowl aspirations that’s sluggish against the run, you do need to be solid in other defensive metrics. In the case of the Patriots, they could make up for some struggles against the run with the fact that they’re also in the Top 10 when it comes to pass defense (220.4 yards per game, ninth) and points allowed (20.9, also ninth).
In addition, if you’re a Patriots fan, you can take comfort in the words from an unlikely source: Tony Dungy. The former Colts coach said Sunday night that this New England team reminds him a lot of the 2006 Indy team he coached to the Super Bowl. That team was abysmal against the run -- the Colts allowed 173 rushing yards per game. It was the worst finish in the league, and the worst total for any Super Bowl team over the last decade. At the same time, the Colts were one of the league’s best teams against the pass, finishing second with 159.3 yards allowed. (In the case of the 2006 Indy team, it’s important to remember that the postseason is often times a different brand of football altogether. They flipped the script and allowed an average of 83 rushing yards in their four playoff games -- 90 yards per game fewer than the regular season.)
One thing that appears to be absolutely necessary if you’re defensively deficient in a key area is an elite quarterback. To Dungy’s point, the Colts were able to paper over a number of their woes with one of the best seasons of Peyton Manning’s career. The same case could be made for Drew Brees and the 2009 Saints, as well as Aaron Rodgers and the 2010 Packers -- although Green Bay already was good enough defensively across the board. And despite what you think of his regular-season performances, there’s no arguing the fact that Joe Flacco had one of the best playoff runs in NFL history last season to help lift the Ravens to the title.
In the case of the 2013 Patriots, they certainly have an elite-level quarterback, as well as an offense that is just now coming into its own. In almost every other case over the last decade, a team with a below-average defense was able to get a superlative offensive effort down the stretch. Given the fact that New England has scored at least 27 points in seven of its last nine games, it should bode well for the Patriots when it comes to masking any sort of problems with the run defense down the stretch.
One other thing -- you need a little bit of luck, whether it’s from the schedule-makers or simply a friendly bounce here or there. In the case of the New England run defense, it will likely get a break due to the fact that they don’t face many run-heavy teams the rest of the way. Of the four games remaining on their regular-season schedule, only the Bills (fourth at 139.2 rushing yards per game) is in the Top 15 when it comes to running the ball, but the Buffalo offense likely doesn’t have the balance needed to be considered a serious threat to the Patriots. And only two of the serious AFC playoff contenders in the Chiefs (11th at 124 rushing yards per game) and Broncos (13th at 121.9 rushing yards per game) are in the top half of the league when it comes to running the ball.
It’s important to remember that the defensive stat that the Patriots crave above all else is points per game allowed, and in that regard -- and when stacked against the Super Bowl winners of the last 10 seasons -- the Patriots look good. Through 12 games, they’ve allowed 20.9 points per game, good for ninth in the league. Not great, but good enough, especially when you consider the final stats of the last 10 Super Bowl winners. That 20.9 per game average would rank sixth on a list of the last 10 champions, ahead of teams like the 2012 Ravens (21.5), 2007 Giants (21.9) and 2011 Giants (25.0).
Bottom line? The problems with New England’s run defense are real, and could ultimately turn out to be what sinks the Patriots down the road. But at the same time, history says that when you’re armed with a Hall of Fame quarterback and a secondary that has proven it can make stops when needed, it’s certainly the sort of thing that could be minimized, at least in the short term.