Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Prelude To A Championship, Part VII - Run Defense A Product Of Health...On Both Defense And Offense

The last time the New England Patriots went to Denver the Broncos rushed for 5.6 yards per carry.

That's bad, but that number is misleading.

Rushing 32 times for 179 yards and two touchdowns is an epic performance in anyone's book, but it doesn't tell the entire story that for three quarters of football, the Patriots' defense had held the Broncos to a far more reasonable 92 yards on 23 carries, a 4.0 yards per carry.

That still isn't that good, but enough to have held the Broncos offense to just seven points - but one muffed punt later, and a tired Patriots' run defense surrendered 87 yards on just 9 carries, as the Broncos erased a 14 point lead and would eventually beat New England in overtime, with running back C. J. Anderson breaking loose for a walk-off 48 yard touchdown run in the free period.
Hightower (54) and Brown (90) should have a better outing this time around

For the game, the Patriots gave up an abysmal 12.5 yards per carry off the weak side and 6.4 off the strong side, and the press in both cities are treating those numbers as an advantage for Denver, but a closer look at the numbers tells a different story.

The Broncos had two lengthy touchdown runs, both by Anderson. The first one was a 15 yard job off the strong side immediately after Patriots' punt returner Chris Harper muffed the punt that ignited the Denver comeback, and the second was Anderson's 48 yarder in overtime. If you take away those two plays, the weak side gave up just 4.5 yards per carry and the strong side gave up just 2.6.

Obviously, the Broncos were able to run on New England, and they started tearing off yards in chunks as the game wore on. But the real factor in that loss for the Patriots was that the offense could not sustain drives, leaving their defense with precious little time for rest.

Of the fifteen possessions the Patriots had in the game, ten ended in punts with six of those being after the offense had gone three-and-out. To compound those numbers, their four scoring drives took 2:03 (four plays), 1:32 (3 plays), :17 (3 plays) and 1:09 (5 plays). In fact, the longest possession for New England on that day was a six-play, 3:08 drive that ended at midfield with a Ryan Allen punt.

As a result, the Broncos won the time of possession battle by a robust 11 minutes, wearing down the New England defense with long, time consuming drives, and were rewarded with wide open running lanes as the game went later and later.

Still the Patriots held a 21-7 lead going into the 4th quarter, and were it not for the muffed punt, this Sunday's game is played in Foxborough, not Denver.

That said, how can the Patriots prevent that same scenario from playing out this Sunday? First of all, 15 possessions for each side is too many - the offense needs to put together a better plan to sustain drives this time around, which shouldn't be that difficult given that in that last encounter, the Patriots were without wide receiver Julian Edelman and played half of the game without tight end Rob Gronkowski, who left with a knee injury.

Secondly, the team was without strong side linebacker Jamie Collins, who made his first Pro Bowl this season despite missing four games with a mysterious illness. With Collins back and teamed with Dont'a Hightower - who left the November game with a knee injury - the Patriots can run their Big Nickle package (4-2-5) to get more speed on the second level so that Anderson doesn't find those holes off tackle and around the edge.

What else can they do? They played well enough to win the first go around, even being handicapped by massive injury.

The Broncos' offense lives and dies with the run. One would think that with a name like Peyton Manning running the show on offense that wouldn't be the case, but the simple fact of the matter is that Manning hasn't been himself for the past year and a half, so the onus has been on Denver's running game and top-ranked defense to keep them in games...

...and it's been a winning formula for them to the tune of a 12-4 record and top seed in the AFC playoffs, and a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Divisional round - but it hasn't always been that way.

Early in the season behind an offensive line missing their two starting tackles while breaking in left guard Evan Mathis and two interior linemen that had never played in an NFL game before, the Broncos rushed for just 86 yards per contest, a number that bumped up significantly once Denver head coach Gary Kubiak benched Manning in favor of young Brock Osweiller to 122 yards per game as Kubiak scaled back the offense a bit...

...increasing even more when Osweiller was benched for the final game of the regular season and the divisional round win over Pittsburgh to a whopping 146 yards per game as Kubiak sought to protect his veteran signal caller from opposing pass rushers.

Of course, part of that also has to do with the fact that the Broncos' line - Tackles Ryan Harris and Michael Schofield, guards Mathis and Louis Vasquez and center Matt Paradis - have started every game this season and have gained a large measure of chemistry together - and while the Broncos have had the most success running between Harris and Mathis all season, they have slowly been able to gain traction to the right and up the middle as well.

Running left, the Broncos go for nearly five yards a pop, with four yards a carry to the right and 3.9 up the middle - not bad at all under the circumstances.

The full benefit of that running game was on display against the Patriots in their regular season meeting and should be again on Sunday, though the Patriots are a markedly different team than they were in late November, mostly on offense, but the return to health of the skill position players on offense should hold the total possessions for each team down to a more reasonable number - say around ten...

...which, if the Patriots run their four-minute offense the way that it is designed, should afford their defenders their proper rest between series - should being the key word, as that wasn't the case against the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round as New England had scoring drives of 4:37 and 5:36, but averaged less that two minutes per possession on their other seven possessions.

Fortunately for the Patriots, they were able to score on three of those brief drives to put the game out of reach in the fourth quarter, when the defense was able to go into their three-deep shell and force the Chiefs to burn time with short gains, doing so with their big nickle defense, when Pat Chung came up into the box like a weak side linebacker, covering tight ends and shedding blocks to make a statement in the running game.

There shouldn't be a lot of room up the gut against the Patriots as defensive tackle Alan Branch is finding his groove and All-Rookie team nose tackle Malcom Brown has become a force inside with Akiem Hicks flexing his muscles in a backup role. On the strong side, Rob Ninkovich is one of the better edge setters in the league and is flanked by Collins on the second level.

The issue this time, as it was in November, is the weak side. Chandler Jones has been limited in practice since tweaking a knee in the Kansas City game, and linebacker Jerod Mayo is gone for the rest of the season with a bum shoulder and should be replaced on the weakside by Dont'a Hightower, whose "Mike" spot will probably be filled by Jonathan Freeny.

If Jones can't go, talented edge setter Jaball Sheard will get the call at defensive end on the weak side.

The Patriots are indeed healthier than they were in November, and as the offense gains chemistry with all of the players coming back from injury and the defense fills the hole left by Mayo with bigger and faster personnel, they should be in much better shape to finish what they started on that Sunday night in Denver...

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