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Patriots run defense shaping up

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The Patriots are beginning to look like they have a strong run defense to go along with their already formidable pass defense.

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Early in the 2014 NFL season, the New England Patriots had developed the tagline of a unit that "can't stop the run." After their abysmal play to start the year (memories of Knowshon Moreno and the Dolphins are lurking), who could argue that label? After losing Jerod Mayo for the year in week six, most figured things would just get worse.

Instead, the opposite has happened. The Patriots have progressively gotten better at stopping the run, to the point that they have been the best in the league in that area the last three weeks (H/T: Mike Dussault). Take a quick look at the numbers:

Week 9 vs. Broncos: Ronnie Hillman, 10 carries, 16 yards, 1.6 YPC
Week 11 vs. Colts: Ahmad Bradshaw, 7 carries, 4 yards | Trent Richardson, 6 carries, 0 yards
Week 12 vs. Lions: Joique Bell, 19 carries, 48 yards, 0 TD's, 2.5 YPC

So what has happened that has allowed the Patriots to improve so much in this area? Here's a basic outline:

1. The Patriots are doing a great job setting the edge. Rob Ninkovich has dramatically improved his early season play, and Dominique Easley / Zach Moore / Akeem Ayers have been solid in this area since Chandler Jones went down.

2. The Patriots are simply beefier up front. Vince Wilfork is back to playing at an elite level as a run defender. Alan Branch as provided an upgrade over Casey Walker and Casey Walker was a dramatic upgrade over Joe Vellano.

3. Sharply improved linebacker play. Dont'a Hightower continues to play at a top level in the running game. Jamie Collins really struggled in this area earlier in the season, but has finally begun to realize the hype that surrounded him heading into this season.

4. The ability to play the "big nickel" with Patrick Chung. He has been excellent as an in-the-box safety, and is constantly mixing it up in running scenarios. His excellent play (along with Hightower and Collins) has allowed the Patriots to maintain flexibility on the back-end, while still remaining competent in defending the run.

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Of course, it has helped that the Patriots have been playing with large leads. However, the film doesn't lie and the stats have backed it up: the Patriots are good at defending the run. Conceivably, they should get even better once Sealver Siliga returns. This is all welcome news, with December and January football right around the corner.