Check the Film: Improved edge play fuels dramatic run defense turnaround
Hightower and co completely bottled up Miller and the Dolphins ground game. Stew Milne/USA Today
After each Patriots game, I'll be going back over the game film and posting my observations. This week, I decided to look into the in-season transformation of the Pats run defense. This unit was amongst the league's worst early in the season, but since has turned it around and become a formidable group to run against. A week after proving that against one of the league's top rushing teams in the Jets, the Pats flexed their run stuffing muscles in a dominant performance against the Fins. I compared this week's film with the early season footage to try to figure out what's fueled their dramatic improvement.
The Patriots defense was a question mark going into 2015. Gone were Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington, three differently skilled corners who gave the Pats a unique ability to man up with even the league's top passing offenses. In their place was a combination of relatively unproven youngsters (Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan) and uninspiring offseason pickups (Bradley Fletcher, Tarrell Brown). The narrative going into the season was that the front seven, already deep before adding veteran edge rusher Jabaal Sheard and first round defensive tackle Malcom Brown, would have to cover up for deficiencies on the back-end.
Instead, at least early on in the season, it was that revamped front seven's inability to stop the run that held the defense back. It was easy for me to write off DeAngelo Williams' big opening night game as a byproduct of scheme, as the Patriots went with a nickel-heavy gameplan against the Steelers and played the drastically undersized Geneo Grissom for the majority of the game on the interior. The real test would come the next week, when stopping the run figured to be a defensive priority against LeSean McCoy and the run-dependent Bills offense.
Another dismal performance on the ground turned what seemed to be an aberration into an alarming trend. Through two weeks, the Pats had given up a ridiculous 294 yards on the ground, good for 147 a game. They led the league by a country mile by allowing 5.65 yards per carry. They were, without a doubt, the worst run defense in the league.
Since then, however, the switch has been flipped. Since those disastrous two weeks, the Pats have been one of the league's stingiest run defenses. Over that five game stretch, the Pats have given up just 381 yards, allowing just 76.2 per game on the ground. Situational football has aided them, as their prolific offense often gives them the advantage of playing from ahead. They've only faced 21.5 rushing attempts per game over that span, as team's have often been forced to abandon the run earlier than they'd like against these Pats. However, they've also let up a mere 3.52 yards per carry over that stretch; only the Jaguars (surprise!) have been stingier than that against the run this season.
That trend continued against the Dolphins on Thursday night. The Dolphins came into Week 8 red hot and with a renewed commitment to the running game, with 33.5 rushing plays per game in two games under interim coach Dan Campbell. They only ran 13 times against the Pats, but not due to the game situation. In fact, despite the Patriots clearly carrying the play on the field, the vast majority of Thursday's game was within a two possession deficit for the Dolphins. Instead, they were forced to stop running because it proved counter-productive, as the Pats held them to 15 yards on those 13 carries.
The film from Thursday further confirmed that strong play on the edge has been one of the key factors in the run defense's turnaround. Not once did a Dolphins back manage get around the edges set by Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, as they were repeatedly forced to cut back inside. This funneled those backs right into the teeth of the defense, where a steady rotation of defensive tackles and linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins were waiting.
On this first quarter play, Rob Ninkovich sets a hard edge and Malcom Brown maintains good position, keeping his arms extended to remain in the gap. This forces Lamar Miller to cut back into the waiting arms of Chandler Jones, who has nimbly avoided an attempt to cut him on the backside of the play.
Here, it's Jones who sets a good edge on the defensive right side. This forces Jonas Gray to cut back inside, despite a lack of running room there, as Brown has held his own against a double team and Akiem Hicks is squeezing in against his own double team from the backside. Gray nimbly avoids a tackle from Jones on the play, but is tripped up by Brown as he tries to escape outside. Had he broken free to the outside, he'd still have to contend with Devin McCourty, Justin Coleman and Patrick Chung, who are all swarming to the ball as Gray hits the turf.
Setting the edge is one thing. What Chandler Jones does on this second quarter snap is another, as he tosses aside Jordan Cameron like a rag doll before closing in to make the tackle. Jones is known for his pass rushing, but he's truly developed into a complete edge defender. Jones has made a conscious effort to get bigger and stronger each offseason without sacrificing the agility that makes him such a gifted pass rusher, and this play is certainly an example of that offseason work paying dividends.
Contrast that with the film from the season's first two weeks, when breakdowns on the edge led to many of the opposition's big gains on the ground. This was the Patriots first defensive play from scrimmage of the season. As you can see, Ninkovich gets sucked in to far and loses contain, allowing DeAngelo Williams to get around the edge and eat up a lot of unoccupied turf for an 18 yard gain.
Ninkovich was the culprit on this 5 yard run as well. In both cases, while he maintains proper outside position, his edge isn't set upfield enough to force the inside cutback. Instead, Williams is able to run right across his face, forcing him to make an extremely difficult one-on-one tackle to prevent the back from gaining the edge with momentum. Jabaal Sheard had a similar play on Williams in the first half of that Steelers game.
Sheard has a chance here but misses a tough 1 v 1 tackle. Forcing a cutback would have been the stronger play
While containing the edge has been huge, some of the overall improvement in the run defense can simply be attributed to individual improvement, with Malcom Brown perhaps making the biggest strides. Brown struggled early in the season with the Patriots gap control techniques, earning some poor marks for his work from ProFootballFocus. In fact, it's worth wondering if the early season trade for Akiem Hicks was made partially with Brown's early season struggles in mind. Here's a visual example from the season opener, as Steelers guard David DeCastro easily tosses Brown out of his assigned gap on an 11 yard DeAngelo Williams run.
Practice makes perfect, however, and Brown has steadily improved as the season has gone on. He's taken on a larger role the past two weeks against the run-heavy Jets and Dolphins and has been stout in the middle. He shows up with excellent technique taking on blockers on both of the above Chandler Jones screengrabs, and also showed up on this "sack" on a busted Miami play. Here he takes on the blocker and maintains gap discipline before shedding the block (a strength of his coming out of college), locating the ball carrier, and hustling down the line to make the play.
Brown's hardly the only member of the Patriots interior to show marked improvement. Alan Branch appeared to come into training camp out of shape, and performed so poorly in the preseason that I speculated he could be on the roster bubble. That poor play continued early in the regular season, with Branch getting pushed around at the line of scrimmage far too often for a 6'6", 350 pound man. The Pats were patient with him, likely because they know what he's capable of when healthy and motivated. He's been those things recently and has been a beast up front, leapfrogging Sealver Siliga as arguably the Patriots top "big bodied" defensive tackle. With Siliga and Hicks providing more than capable depth, the Pats have the luxury of keeping the starting duo of Branch and Brown fresh without suffering much, if any, drop off.
They've also benefited from the availability of a healthy Dominique Easley. As you may recall, Easley was injured on the Steelers first possession and missed the remainder of the season opener, as well as the Week 2 tilt with the Bills. Like Jones, Easley is thought of as a pass rusher first and run defender second, but he also uses his physical skill set well to penetrate and create negative plays in the running game. This play was a perfect example, as Easley drives Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey into the backfield, blowing up the running play.
The improved play on the interior has just helped the dynamic linebacking duo of Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower make even more plays. No one doubts what those two are capable of after their terrific seasons a year ago, but both were blocked too often during the first two weeks on the ground. Time after time, Pittsburgh was able to execute successful combo blocks on the Patriots defensive tackles: an initial double team with one of the blockers peeling off in time to pick off a linebacker at the second level.
Those type of combo blocks only work if the man left to fend for himself against the defensive tackle can hold up in that assignment. With Branch and Brown in particular putting up a much tougher fight at the line of scrimmage, the second blocker has often been forced to stay in and help contain them for a split second longer. That extra-split second makes all the difference in the world when you're talking about a pair of linebackers as explosive and instinctive as Hightower and Collins. Even when the second blocker is able to peel off in time, Hightower and Collins are doing a much better job both at avoiding blocks and taking them on and beating them than they were at the start of the season. The results have been obvious to the naked eye, as it's seemed like those two have been everywhere in the past few weeks.
While on the subject of linebackers, Jonathan Freeny deserves some love as well. Freeny only played seven snaps against the Dolphins, as the Pats spent the vast majority of the game in a two linebacker nickel package and gave backups Jerod Mayo and Jon Bostic some rare snaps in garbage time. However, Freeny was extremely active in his limited opportunities, showing up in the backfield multiple times against running plays (note his work on the Chandler Jones gif). He's earned his promotion over Mayo in the team's base defense.
Of course, defending the run is a total team effort, with the secondary also showing up when called upon. The cornerback trio of Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Justin Coleman have tackled well all season, adding another layer to the Patriots edge defense. Sure tackling on the back end of the defense (credit to Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon there) has also prevented teams from turning the runs where they do find gaps into big gains, something that hurt the Pats early in the season. For the season, the Pats have allowed just 4 runs of 20+ yards and none of the 40+ variety. Two of those 20 yarders came in the season's first two weeks.
It should come as no surprise that such a dramatic statistical turnaround against the run has required a total team effort. However, a look at the Miami film confirms that the improved play on the edge has been the catalyst. With Hightower and Collins playing at such a high level behind their deep defensive line rotation, it's simply going to be hard for opponents to find space to run between the tackles. As long as Jones, Ninkovich and eventually Sheard can continue to funnel the ball carriers back inside, expect the Pats to continue to snuff out opposing running games. That will in turn make opposing offenses one-dimensional, opening up all kinds of possibilities for a devastating and versatile group of pass rushers.