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Patriots defensive tackles deserve more credit for their outstanding run defense

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The Patriots run defense deserves to be named with the Seahawks, Panthers, Jets, Cardinals, and Rams.

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Over the past two seasons, the New England Patriots have fielded one of the best run defenses in the entire league. The defense has allowed 14 rushing touchdowns, the fewest in the league, and 2,997 rushing yards, the fifth fewest in the league behind the Seattle Seahawks, Carolina Panthers, New York Jets, and Arizona Cardinals- all teams will extremely well regarded defensive lines.

And then there’s the nameless, faceless Patriots defensive line.

The Patriots join the those four other teams and the Los Angeles Rams as the only teams in the NFL to boast back-to-back top 10 run defenses by Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Those other five teams had All Pro or Pro Bowl defensive linemen in Michael Bennett, Kawann Short, Leonard Williams, Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, Calais Campbell, and Aaron Donald.

The Patriots defensive interior of Alan Branch and Malcom Brown have not received any accolades, and yet the defense is somehow as stout against the run as any in the league.

Oliver Thomas did an outstanding job of analyzing Branch and his late-career renaissance, while Brown is about to enter his third season in the league as a dominant run defender. The Patriots have also added talent in Vincent Valentine and Lawrence Guy (and I’ll always pound the table for Woodrow Hamilton’s performance in 2016) to bolster the defensive front.

It might be difficult to associate Branch and Brown with the other top defensive tackles in the league, but Pro Football Focus compared their production against the run to the rest of the league and the proof is on tape.

“Alan Branch [and] Malcom Brown...[were] dominant this year against the run,” according to Pro Football Focus. “Branch and Brown finished second and third among all defensive tackles in run-stop percentage.”

Branch and Brown trailed only Giants DT Damon Harrison in run-stop percentage; Harrison has led the league in each of the past four seasons and was actually a part of the Jets defense in 2015. Run-stop percentage is simply how often these defenders make a successful stop against the run.

We can look deeper at the numbers to see how the Patriots perform with Branch and Brown on the field versus the average NFL team. The NFL provides a statistic called “Net Yards Allowed Over Average” (NYAOA), which highlights how many yards a team allows in a particular down-distance-field position scenario compared to the league average in identical scenarios.

Brown and Branch ranked sixth and seventh, respectively, in NYAOA which means that the Patriots defensive tackle duo were among the best in the league at stopping the run. Brown actually led all defensive tackles in NYAOA per snap (min. 200 snaps against the run), a testament to his consistency against the run.

DT Run Defense

Player Team Run snaps Rushing NYoA Rushing NYoA/Rush
Player Team Run snaps Rushing NYoA Rushing NYoA/Rush
Malcom Brown NE 250 207.66 0.83
Abry Jones JAX 263 212.66 0.81
Corey Peters ARZ 237 182.85 0.77
Star Lotulelei CAR 244 185.45 0.76
Ethan Westbrooks LA 221 167.96 0.76
Ahtyba Rubin SEA 297 222.86 0.75
Alan Branch NE 271 192.67 0.71
Jarran Reed SEA 232 162.68 0.7
Damon Harrison NYG 318 219.11 0.69
Tyrone Crawford DAL 205 141.68 0.69
Tony McDaniel SEA 223 144.68 0.65
Kawann Short CAR 262 167.54 0.64
Johnathan Hankins NYG 332 208.86 0.63
Linval Joseph MIN 345 213.96 0.62
Calais Campbell ARZ 324 184.65 0.57
Shamar Stephen MIN 285 148.39 0.52
Sheldon Richardson NYJ 325 149.31 0.46
D.J. Reader HST 213 91.44 0.43
Brandon Williams BLT 315 129.35 0.41
Corey Liuget SD 329 118.49 0.36

Brown and Branch probably won’t receive the same accolades as other defensive tackles because the Patriots don’t ask them to rush the quarterback. Donald, Campbell, Short, and Bennett all have much more freedom against the pass, while Brown and Branch are often asked to control the line of scrimmage to prevent the quarterback from escaping.

But there’s no question that their run defense is on par with the elite defensive tackles around the league.