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Stopping run a big first step

Defensive discipline would help Patriots get job done

Willis McGahee (left) is averaging 4.6 yards per carry for Denver’s league-leading rushing attack. Willis McGahee (left) is averaging 4.6 yards per carry for Denver’s league-leading rushing attack. (John Leyba/Associated Press/The Denver Post)
By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / December 18, 2011
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DENVER - Lost in all the hoopla about whether Tim Tebow will ever be a passing quarterback, the debate about whether his faith and spirituality matter, and the ever-growing phenomenon known as Tebow Time is this undeniable fact: If the Patriots are going to win today, they’re going to have to shut down the Broncos’ ground game.

Denver boasts the NFL’s top-ranked rushing offense, averaging 156.2 yards per game. The Broncos went for 299 against the Raiders Nov. 6, a game in which Tebow ran for 118 yards on 13 carries and Willis McGahee gashed Oakland for 163 yards on 20 carries.

Containing that pair will be job No. 1 for the New England defense.

“If you love the run game, you got it this week,’’ Vince Wilfork, one of the Patriots’ primary run stuffers, said Friday. “They’re going to run the ball. That’s what they do. Best team in the league doing that. They have a three-headed monster, two backs and quarterback.’’

Tebow is averaging 5.5 yards per carry, while McGahee, revived after backing up Ray Rice in Baltimore for a couple of seasons, is picking up 4.6 yards per carry. Third-year back Lance Ball has been McGahee’s primary backup, and he has averaged 4.2 yards a carry.

McGahee is a familiar face for the Patriots: He played three years with the Bills, then four with the Ravens before being released and signing with Denver.

“Willis is still Willis. Still carrying the ball hard and running hard and making his jump cuts,’’ said Wilfork, who played with McGahee at the University of Miami. “He probably doesn’t have the speed he used to have, but he’s still fast, he’s still quick, just a hard-nosed runner. One of those backs you can give the ball to him 20 times, 25 times . . . If the team needs him to carry the ball, he can.’’

Denver is averaging nearly as many rushing yards as passing yards (160.8, 31st in the league).

“They just do a lot of things well. They run the ball well. They have a little bit of an option game, they throw it well, play-action, throw the ball down the field to some big receivers who can go up and get it,’’ Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “It’s no one-man band. We’ll get tested across the board.

“McGahee is having a great year, he’s running well. They can run the ball inside, run it outside, throw it short, catch-and-run plays, throw it down the field. They have a well-balanced attack.’’

New England has always prided itself on playing the run, but the Broncos’ ability to rack up yards on the ground in so many ways, coupled with the fact that the Patriots allowed their first 100-yard rusher this season last week (the Redskins’ Roy Helu), and the edict is crystal clear: Do your job.

Defensively, it’s all about “being disciplined,’’ Wilfork said.

“Everything is being disciplined this week. Just doing your job and making sure that you’re taking care of your job. If we do that, we can be successful,’’ he said. “We can’t give up big plays, we can’t give up bonehead plays, we just have to make them earn everything they get, which they have been.

“We have to match their intensity, and it starts up front, offense and defense. Can we handle the run? Can we run the ball a little bit [on offense]? Can we tackle well as a defense? It’s going to come down to a bunch of little things this week.’’

Though the Patriots’ defense won’t have safety Patrick Chung (foot) and linebacker Brandon Spikes (knee) today, the unit does one thing better than most teams: play their assignments.

They’re patient. They play their role on any given play. And if all 11 guys do that, a positive result is likely to follow.

Jumping out to an early lead will almost certainly help New England’s cause, because if the Broncos are playing catch-up, they won’t be able to run as often.

And there’s one other thing the Patriots have to do: finish.

“You can play 55 minutes of good football, but if you don’t have it together for five minutes at the end of the ballgame, those 55 minutes really don’t mean anything,’’ Wilfork said. “The more critical it gets, the better they get. That’s a tough football team.

“So we have our challenge ahead of us - we have to do a lot of homework, we have to do a lot of reps, a lot of studying, different types of things, but you know what? It’s part of football. I’m pretty sure they’re not out there sitting on their tails either, saying they’ve got it all figured out with us.

“It’s a work in progress, but at the same time, on Sunday, we have to be ready to roll. That starts with everybody doing their job and being disciplined with what they’re doing and hopefully we’ll be OK.’’

Start fast, stop the Broncos’ running attack, finish strong. All vital for the Patriots.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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