Can the New England Patriots Overcome Inability to Stop the Run on Defense?

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Can the New England Patriots Overcome Inability to Stop the Run on Defense?
Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last three seasons, pass defense has been the weak link for the New England Patriots.

No other NFL team gave up more 20-plus passing plays in that span, with the Pats consistently near the bottom of the league in total passing yards allowed and ranked third-worst in yards per pass.

However, the Pats' defense had its best season against the run in nearly a decade in 2012, but that couldn't save New England from another disappointing ending. In a passing league, a stout run defense doesn't matter if a team can't stop an aerial assault.

In 2013, the Patriots' defensive paradigm has quickly, and completely, shifted.

Winslow Townson/Getty Images
The Pats have missed Wilfork most against the run.

With Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly on IR, the Patriots were forced to rely on two undersized rookie tackles in the heart of their defense. Suddenly, a historically stout team is giving up the third-most rushing yards per game.

At the same time, the Patriots' pass defense has taken a big step forward from the last three seasons, even with Jerod Mayo, Wilfork and Kelly gone for the year, and Aqib Talib missing the last three games.

Through nine games this season, the Pats are giving up 52.5 fewer passing yards per game compared to 2012's first nine games. They have also given up nine fewer 20-plus passes.

In the modern NFL, a league centered around quarterbacks and their passing attacks, does a suspect run defense really matter? Can a better pass defense put the Pats over the top, even as their run defense struggles?

Let's dig a little deeper. 

Patriots Defensive Stats
2012 2013
Rushing Yards-per-Game 101.9 (9th) 128.2 (30th)
Rushing Yards-per-Attempt 3.9 (6th) 4.3 (22nd)
Passing Yards-per-Game 271 (29th) 233 (12th)
Passing Yards-per-Attempt 7.7 (28th) 6.7 (10th)

ESPN.com

We must begin with the cold, hard statistics of the Patriots run defense since it has lost Wilfork and Kelly. Since Week 4, the Patriots have given up more than 125 rushing yards four times in five games.

In 2012, they gave up more than 125 yards just twice all season.

Using the defensive line DVOA rankings at Football Outsiders  we get a clearer picture of where the Patriots have declined in run defense. They're ranked 31st overall in Adjusted Line Yards, with their worst-rated area being their 31st overall ranking in the "Stuffed Run" category.

Elsa/Getty Images
Hasn't been enough of this in 2013.

Simply put, the Patriots aren't making many plays in the opponent's backfield and are giving up the second-most yards per carry when those carries are weighted with the situation and outcome.

The losses of Mayo, Wilfork and Kelly have given opponents a target to attack, and they are having success when running at the heart of the Pats defense. 

But on the flip side of that coin, the Pats have their best pass defense in recent memory, ranking eighth in pass defense DVOA for their highest DVOA ranking since 2007. They've been 16th or worse every season in between.

Can this jump by New England''s pass defense offset the issues with its run defense? 

Yes. 

No Super Bowl champion has had a run defense that has ranked higher than 16th in yards per carry or DVOA since the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2008. The Steelers are really the last great all-around defense to win the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Will run defense be the downfall of the Patriots this season?

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However, if you look at pass defense DVOA, three of the past five Super Bowl champs were in the top 10. Only the Giants were in the bottom half of the league at 19th. On offense, three of the last four Super Bowl champs' offenses have been in the top 10 in DVOA. Last season, the Ravens were 13th.

What it all mean is that run defense doesn't matter much if you have an elite offense and pass defense. And, in terms of DVOA, the Pats run defense was actually worse in both 2010 and 2011.

It might be a stretch to call the Pats passing offense elite at this point in the season, given the turnover and injuries they've had, but they certainly look capable of being a top offense. What will matter is how well they perform down the stretch and in the playoffs.

Perhaps the best example of that are the 2006 Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts, who were the worst run defense in the NFL. Their key? Tightening up in the playoffs. After giving up an average of 173 yards rushing during the regular season, they gave up an average of just 83 yards on the ground in four playoff games.

The Patriots have been hit hard by injuries and turnover this season, and their run defense has taken the biggest step backwards, but their improved pass defense and emerging offense could still be enough to spark another playoff run.

  

Mike Dussault is a Patriots Featured Columnist who also writes and edits PatsPropaganda.com.  

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