The Baltimore Ravens had the best defense in the league entering week 14 and the New England Patriots offense made short work of it. QB Tom Brady sliced up the secondary and RB LeGarrette Blount rumbled over the top ranked run defense in a beautiful display of complementary football.
“That’s kind of how we have to look at it,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said on Wednesday, “how those plays in the offense tie together relative to overall production. Not just if a team wants to stop the run, they can stop the run, but they give up plays on the play-action passes then that kind of offsets it or vice versa. When you throw it for 400 yards or whatever it was, some of the passing game is set up by the running game. Again, it’s just trying to play complementary football when we can.”
The Patriots certainly took advantage of the Ravens secondary by setting up the play action pass. Kirk does an excellent job breaking down the Patriots rushing identity here.
Week 15 won’t be any easier for the Patriots with the Denver Broncos on the schedule, but this isn’t the 2015 Broncos defense. Denver has gotten better as a secondary- but they’ve gotten much, much worse against the run.
The fall has been striking.
The Broncos boasted the 3rd best run defense in the NFL by DVOA and the 4th fewest rushing yards in 2014, and followed that up with the 4th best run defense in the NFL by DVOA and the 3rd fewest rushing yards in 2015. This year, the Broncos defense is the 8th worst against the run, and only the Browns, 49ers, and Dolphins have allowed more rushing yards than the 2016 Broncos defense.
So what are the big differences?
There are two: 1) DT Malik Jackson signed a fat contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars over the offseason and the Broncos have been unable to replace him in the line-up; 2) the Broncos have also failed to replace LB Danny Trevathan.
When you look at the 2016 Broncos defense, the secondary is almost the same as it was in 2015, with the exception at safety where both Darian Stewart and T.J. Ward have been much healthier and available this year. The team is almost the same on the edge with Von Miller and a rotation with Shane Ray, Shaq Barrett, and DeMarcus Ware.
On the defensive line, Sylvester Williams and Derek Wolfe are playing roughly the same amount of snaps as they were in 2015, while Brandon Marshall remains a vital player at linebacker.
But Jared Crick has been completely unable to replace Malik Jackson at defensive tackle. In 2015, the Broncos ranked 4th in the NFL at defending runs to the left, allowing 3.15 yards per run behind the left tackle and 2.93 yards behind the left guard. This year, they’ve allowed more than double the yardage, giving up 6.59 yards per carry behind the left tackle (32nd in the NFL) and 6.00 yards per carry behind the left guard (30th).
Add in the loss of Trevathan in free agency to the Chicago Bears, and the injuries suffered by Brandon Marshall (hamstring), and the Broncos second level of defense has been much weaker, too. Todd Davis and Corey Nelson have stepped up, but they’re battling through rib and finger injuries, respectively.
The Broncos defensive front seven hasn’t been this vulnerable in years and the Patriots are finally able to take advantage.
Last year, the Patriots rushing attack was nonexistent and the Broncos treated it as such in the AFC Championship game, challenging the 30th ranked Patriots rushing attack to even dream of running the ball. The Patriots failed and the Broncos won.
This year, Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount boasts the 5th most rushing yards in the NFL and the most rushing touchdowns, while RB James White and RB Dion Lewis have to be licking their chops at the opportunity to face the Broncos coverage linebackers in the open field.
A lot can change in a year and the Broncos run defense and the Patriots run offense have gone in completely different directions. You can be sure that the Patriots will challenge the Broncos run defense early and often.