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Patriots will need gap discipline to beat the Cardinals

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The Patriots face a tough challenge in Arizona on Sunday night, but if they can contain David Johnson, they might be able to steal a victory.

Arizona Cardinals v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Late in the 2015 season, rookie running back David Johnson of the Arizona Cardinals burst onto the scene and solidified himself as one of the top balanced backs in the league. Following injuries to Cardinals rushers Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington, the rookie was given his chance in the potent Cardinals offense, and he never let the starting spot out of his grip.

The hype around Johnson has drastically risen this offseason. Some are proclaiming that he will soon be the best running back in the NFL, and behind an offensive line that ranked fourth in run-blocking last season, according to Pro Football Focus, Johnson has the potential.

When the Patriots play in the desert Sunday night, they will be facing an offense that recorded 30.6 points per game in 2015, second best in the NFL. However, the Patriots will be heading into the game with one of the deepest rosters in the entire league. If they can limit Arizona’s high-octane offense, New England has a real chance to scratch out a victory.

Defensively, a major key will be containing Johnson and forcing the Cardinals to become one-dimensional. The Patriots defense can shut down Johnson and Arizona’s rushing game by playing their gaps intelligently and containing the edge.

On this play, the Philadelphia Eagles had the Cardinals backed up inside their own 10-yard line. Before the snap, Carson Palmer motions tight end Darren Fells across the field to the right side of the line. That motion shifts the right side defensive end (#55 on the offense’s left side) to a 7-technique, far outside of the left tackle.

With the Eagles in 4-1-6 personnel, it’s likely that Brandon Graham (#55) is responsible for two gaps, both the “C-gap” and the “B-gap.” With minimal help beyond him, Graham is supposed to read and react to the play, yet Graham shoots the “B-gap” almost immediately, leaving the edge wide open.

This became an easy read for Johnson, as he turns up outside and earns 11 yards to get the Cardinals out of the rough field position.

In contrast with the previous play, this is what controlling the outside gap can do for a defense. This play was just one of many positive plays for the ferocious Seattle Seahawks defense in this game. The Seahawks bottled up Johnson to just 25 rushes on 11 carries and came out with a dominant 36-6 victory.

In this particular clip, the Cardinals lined Fells on the right side and motioned receiver Larry Fitzgerald in tight to prevent the backside chase-down. Arizona ran a simple inside zone scheme, and Seattle defended the rush in an ordinary 4-2 front, a favorite in New England.

Note: the Cardinals often set Fitzgerald in tight to help block, and we’ll likely see a lot of that tonight.

Ultimately, the play is disrupted by the pressure from the right side defensive end Frank Clark (#55). Clark controls the edge and forces Johnson to dance in the backfield, looking for a cutback lane. Clark beats the typical stalwart Jared Veldheer and crashes in on Johnson for no gain.

Plays like this can alter a game and cause the offense to stall. The Patriots will have to be smart on the edges, provide an initial push up front, and have tough support from the second level.

Johnson has become an elusive, and powerful, one-cut back. It will be essential for the Patriots to seal the edge with whatever means necessary and force the 24-year-old rusher into the heart of the defense. New England will be hurt without Rob Ninkovich, who has made his money as a “force” defender on the edge, on the field tonight. Yet, Jabaal Sheard has proven to be stout against the run and Trey Flowers, who should be rotated regularly tonight, made his mark in college against tough SEC running backs.

Containing Johnson and this Cardinals offense will be no easy task, but if anyone can meet the challenge, it’s Bill Belichick and company.