clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Patriots turn to next chapter vs. Gary Kubiak’s ground game

Sunday will mark the New England Patriots’ 15th meeting with a Gary Kubiak rushing attack since 2000.

The Denver Broncos turned to the air 51 times last week against the Tennessee Titans. The ground, though, was turned away from in what was a 13-10 loss that sent the reigning Super Bowl champions to the AFC’s sixth seed.

Veteran Justin Forsett, now on his third team of the season, handled six carries for 17 yards and a fumble at LP Field. And behind him, rookie fourth-round pick Devontae Booker handled three carries and gained only one yard.

That isn’t the type of output defenses have grown accustomed to seeing from Gary Kubiak’s running backs. His one-cut, zone-running scheme has served as a serrated knife against overpursuing front sevens not only since he returned to Denver as head coach in 2015, but also during his one season as Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator, his seven-plus seasons as Houston Texans head coach, and all the way back to his decade as Broncos offensive coordinator under Mike Shanahan.

But this season, the Broncos’ running game ranks in the bottom-third of the league in yards, yards per attempt, and touchdowns.

Part of the drop-off can be attributed to attrition. Pro Bowler C.J. Anderson, who accumulated 1,569 yards and 13 touchdowns on 4.7 yards per rush between the Broncos’ 2014 and 2015 campaigns, was sent to injured reserve in late October. And depth back Kabri Bibbs followed in early December as a result of a high-ankle sprain, which catalyzed Kubiak’s reunion with the well-travelled Forsett.

Things can also be attributed to a drop-off in efficiency from Booker. After earning a committee role with Anderson early on, the multidimensional runner has netted just 2.7 yards per carry over Denver’s last six contests.

But that doesn’t mean the New England Patriots will take him, or Forsett, or any other back who gets a handoff this Sunday lightly when the 4:25 p.m. ET kickoff arrives at Mile High.

Kubiak’s rushing attack has as strong a track record versus New England as there is to find.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick knows it well.

“Yeah, it’s different personnel running the same plays,” Belichick said of Kubiak’s scheme during his press conference Wednesday. “It’s the same plays in Houston. It was the same plays in Baltimore. It was the same plays in Denver when Shanahan was there. It's the same plays now. It's the same plays.”

The names have long since changed from the likes of Mike Anderson, Olandis Gary and Clinton Portis. In the shadows of athletic lines, there have also been the likes of Arian Foster and Ben Tate, then Forsett, then the latter Anderson and Ronnie Hillman, and now Booker and once again Forsett.

Over the years, however, Kubiak’s success running the ball against the Patriots has mostly remained the same.

Through his assorted job titles, Kubiak’s teams have faced New England 14 times since Belichick was named head coach in 2000. His running backs went for over 100 rushing yards in eight of those meetings, and pieced together at least 80 rushing yards in 13 of those meetings.

The only time they failed to hit 80 was 17 seasons ago.


Broncos – Oct. 1, 2000: 15 carries, 50 yards

Broncos – Oct. 28, 2001: 24 carries, 81 yards, one touchdown

Broncos – Oct. 27, 2002: 33 carries, 132 yards, two touchdowns

Broncos – Nov. 3, 2003: 29 carries, 114 yards, one touchdown

Broncos – Oct. 16, 2005: 29 carries, 172 yards, two touchdowns

Broncos – Jan. 14, 2006: 25 carries, 88 yards, two touchdowns

Texans – Dec. 17, 2006: 22 carries, 105 yards, one touchdown

Texans – Jan. 3, 2010: 24 carries, 136 yards, two touchdowns

Texans – Dec. 10, 2012: 26 carries, 99 yards, one touchdown

Texans – Jan. 13, 2013: 22 carries, 90 yards, one touchdown

Texans – Dec. 1, 2013: 25 carries, 115 yards, three touchdowns

Ravens – Jan. 10, 2015: 27 carries, 136 yards

Broncos – Nov. 29, 2015: 30 carries, 175 yards, three touchdowns

Broncos – Jan. 24, 2016: 27 carries, 88 yards

The Patriots went 7-7 through those 14 games. All the while, Kubiak’s laundry list of backs produced 1,581 yards and 19 touchdowns on 358 carries for an average of 4.41 yards per carry, 112.9 yards per game and 1.35 touchdowns per game.

But the 15th encounter may very well see those numbers brought back down to earth. And it might be due to the Patriots’ gap-disciplined run defense more so than Kubiak’s underperforming stretch-run attack.

In 2016, New England’s run defense quietly stands tied for eighth in the league with 3.9 yards allowed per carry, tied for sixth with 90.2 yards allowed per game, and tied for second with six total rushing touchdowns allowed to not only backs, but all ball-carriers.

That restriction has been magnified over the last three weeks. Offenses haven’t had much interest in running against the Patriots of late, nor has the unit given them much of a reason to.

With Alan Branch and Malcom Brown leveraging the interior, linebacker Dont’a Hightower occupying the second level, and a fresh-legged group of hybrid edge players working to the surface, so has the front’s potential.

Since Nov. 27, New York Jets, Los Angeles Rams and Ravens backs have all been acquainted with it. And together, they managed to tally 141 yards on 46 carries – a clip of just 3.06 per attempt and 47 per game.

The longest run New England conceded over that span was nine yards.

With that said, each matchup is its own entity. Players, schemes and gameflow all change. But there is an underlying history between Kubiak and Belichick. It’s hinged heavily on the ground.

We’ll see which side takes the most of it this time.