There's a link between the strength of a team's running game and the strength of its defense. It's a pretty simple connection; a running game is ball control, ball control is time of possession and time of possession equals time that the defense is A) resting, and B) not needing to actually play defense.
It's a connection that has seen itself manifested in different teams. After all, there's a reason defensive teams tend to play physical, smash-mouth football, while teams with an aerial attack often have defenses that are finesse-driven as well.
But could the opposite be true? Could defense be a reason for how the running game performs?
More specifically, could the New England Patriots' pathetic, pressure-less and toothless defense be a reason for the team's struggles to run the ball?
Balance has been difficult to attain for the Patriots so far. Everybody wants to praise Tom Brady for his start to the season (and for good reason), but No. 12's accomplishments have obscured the fact that the team has been passing the ball 65 percent of the time, a number that was actually lowered after the Patriots passed 63 percent of the time in their embarrassing loss to Buffalo.
At that ratio, it's difficult to keep defenses honest and commit to the run, which forces the play-action to suffer. Also, when teams continue to pass even with the lead, it becomes more of a challenge to wear down the clock and close out the game.
Case in point, the Patriots had the ball on their own nine-yard line against San Diego last week with a 20-7 lead and 4:35 left in the third quarter. The defense had just surrendered 74 yards in 6:38, so in that situation, the Patriots had to either move the ball and string some first downs together, or take time off the clock and give the defense a chance to recover. Preferably both.
Instead, the Patriots did the opposite. One rush was followed by two quick passes, both of which were incomplete. The first rush was for a loss of a yard, but the Patriots made no effort to return to the ground to make for an easier third-down play, settling instead for a three-and-out and 51 seconds off the clock. The defense allowed a touchdown on the next drive.
In fact, the Patriots' current high-octane, pass-heavy offense could be a bad fit for this defense. The offense works out of the no-huddle often, and also strings long plays together that put points on the board but leave little time for the defense to regroup on the sideline, whether by resting or by going over assignments and receiving coaching. And when the offense doesn't produce, it becomes disastrous.
The Patriots can run the ball. They have a 1,000-yard rusher in BenJarvus Green-Ellis, an elusive weapon on draws and sweeps in Danny Woodhead and an emerging talent in Stevan Ridley, who's shown he can produce at the NFL level. The Patriots can run it, but so far, they just haven't. What gives?
The defense could be an answer. It's given coach Bill Belichick little reason to trust it, even less so with the game on the line. When the game gets into the second half and the opponent starts to get drives going, the goal becomes to score as much as possible to prevent the defense from being in a must-execute position.
Going back to that possession against the Chargers, Belichick had just seen San Diego slice through his defense, though Sergio Brown's interception kept points off the board. With a 13-point lead, Belichick's goal may have been to opt for whatever allows the biggest play and whatever has the best chance of resulting in points.
Passing clearly is that option, and with Brady under center, it has a good chance of succeeding.
A running offense is one of control, but when your defense is as porous as the Patriots' has been, you don't want control. You want points, lots of points. Widen the lead as much as you can.
The Patriots may shy away from running the ball because Belichick doesn't want to waste plays on the ground. Giving the backs carries in the first half is one thing, but when the lead is at stake in the second half, it's Brady or bust.
Perhaps, with a better defense, Belichick wouldn't be as terrified to give it responsibility. Perhaps he'd be more willing to focus on the game clock, knowing he could send a defense out on the field that would hold the fort if New England had to punt. Perhaps he'd be more willing to achieve balance, and the offense would be better at converting in dire straits.
In 2004, the Patriots wore down their opponents with a heavy dosage of "Clock Killin' " Corey Dillon. But that team had a defense, too. A defense that made stops, made plays and won games.
Sometimes, "versatile" is better than "explosive." Perhaps the defense is what's keeping this offense from being even better than it's been.
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