For all of the attention placed on the Patriots' defense this season, it now seems time to wonder: Can they stop the run? Can they really? Or do the concerns begin well before the secondary, an area in which the Patriots sometimes run into each other?
Ultimately, this really has nothing to do with last night, a 31-27 win over the Green Bay Packers that all but secured New England’s place as the top seed in the AFC in January. Thanks to the New York Jets’ win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Patriots now need only defeat the Buffalo Bills or Miami Dolphins to secure both a bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. And yet, there remains the issue of that defense, which is more vulnerable on multiple levels than many might believe.
Last night, with the mighty Matt Flynn at quarterback, the Packers ran for 143 yards on 38 rushes. Green Bay faced three occasions on third down where it opted to run for a first down needing three yards or fewer, and the Packers converted all three. Lumbering Dan Connolly will get a great deal of attention today for a 71-yard kickoff return that may have been both the most exciting play in Foxborough last night and the most unlikely in NFL history, but the most pivotal moments came early in the fourth quarter, when the Packers faced a first and goal at the New England 2 while holding a 24-21 lead.
Green Bay ran on first down and gained a yard. The Packers ran on second down and gained nothing. And then coach Mike McCarthy put the ball back in the hands of Flynn, who threw an incompletion that forced the Packers to settle for a field goal and a lead of just 27-21 when they might have had an advantage of 31-21.
Of course, the Patriots also deserve credit for the stop. On two memorable occasions this season – one against Green Bay, the other against Minnesota – the Patriots defense now has dramatically impacted games with stops at or near the goal line. A good deal of Green Bay’s success on the ground last night came when the Packers ran out of passing formations, particularly in the shotgun, and the Patriots generally have been willing to allow teams to run in those situations due to the proficiency of the New England offense.
The Patriots were without some contributors in their run defense, including linebacker Brandon Spikes and linemen Mike Wright, Myron Pryor and Ron Brace. But no matter how you slice it, the Pats generally rank in the middle of the pack (or worse) this season in average rushing yards allowed per game (15th), average yards per carry (15th), rushing touchdowns allowed (14th) and rushing first downs allowed (24th). The one area the Patriots run defense has truly excelled is preventing long runs, having stopped opponents from any runs of 40 yards or more (tied for best in the league) and just five of 20 yards or more (tied for third best).
Generally speaking, coach Bill Belichick has allowed opponents to move the ball in small chunks on the ground. The Packers are not the only team to have succeeded in that regard. But where many clubs ultimately have strayed from the plan – be it as the result of an expanding deficit, impatience or stupidity – the Packers stuck with the plan.
The Packers, hardly one of the league's top rushing teams, ran for 52 yards on 11 carries out of the shotgun, an average of 4.7 yards per rush. The point is that the Patriots' vulnerability against the pass has required them to sacrifice something against the run, an issue the Packers were able to exploit in keeping the ball for an insane 40:48, including a whopping 22:08 of the second half.
Yes, the Patriots won, as they almost always do. But that’s not the point. Factor in the Connolly return and the Packers offense outscored the Patriots offense in this game, 27-17, with a combination of passes and runs that suggested New England’s defensive issues extend beyond third-and-long.
Even with a loss, the Patriots would still have faced the same scenario they do now, which is to say that they are one division victory away from a bye and home-field advantage throughout the postseason. The Packers nearly defeated the Patriots the same way that Cleveland did last month or the Jets did in September. All of that made it all the more curious for Jets coach Rex Ryan to go no-huddle against the Patriots out of the gate two weeks ago, opting for an up-tempo game when he should have been trying to slow things down.
This week, for certain, we are all destined to hear how this was a "blueprint" game, how the Packers exposed some flaws in the Patriots that a better or healthier team will be able to exploit. Such is life for even the good teams in a league where nobody is perfect. But the truth is that the blueprint has existed for quite some time now for anyone who has taken time to notice in what is sure to be an interesting postseason in New England.
To beat the Patriots, you build from the ground up.
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