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Film review: Diagnosing the Patriots struggles stopping the run

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The Patriots got ran all over on Thursday night. Ryan Keiran takes a look at how it happened, why it happened, and how to correct it to keep it from happening again.

NFL: Super Bowl LI-New England Patriots vs Atlanta Falcons Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

As a result of Thursday’s embarrassing defeat, Chiefs rookie running back Kareem Hunt burst on the scene, carving up the Patriots defense that was so effective against the run last year. Hunt ran for 148 yards and a touchdown on just 17 carries, consistently getting chunk yardage that New England couldn’t do anything about. While Hunt was extremely impressive—the following is not to take anything away from what he did—the Patriots struggles stopping the run goes beyond what Hunt did.

The Chiefs had an excellent game plan prepared, and found incredible success taking what the Patriots were willing to give. The Chiefs rarely ran from a negative box (when there are more defenders in the box than blockers), and when they did, they found creative ways to remove defenders from the play without sacrificing blockers to gain back the numbers advantage.

The Chiefs only ran from a negative box 6 times out of 22 designed run plays. Of those 6, 4 were designed to isolate one side of the defense (and essentially turn it into a positive box run). On two stretch runs and two sweeps, the Chiefs gained 34 total yards, with 3 offensive wins (any run that keeps the offense on pace for a first down) and 2 touchdowns. The Patriots had one defensive win in these situations, with less than 3 minutes to go when the Chiefs were running out the clock. New England got a defensive win on both negative box runs between the tackles. Of the 10 even box runs, the Chiefs got an offensive win on 5, and the Patriots got a defensive win on 5. In the remaining 6 positive box runs, the Chiefs got an offensive win every time.

This tells us a couple things: First, that the Chiefs had a good offensive game plan and knew how to take what was given as well as create a positive situation for themselves even when one didn’t appear to be present. Secondly, the Patriots run game wasn’t quite as bad as it appeared when watching live. Don’t get that twisted—the run defense was not good—but the Patriots didn’t seem particularly interested in stopping the run, showcased by only forcing 6 negative boxes and finding expected success when there was an even or better box. Diante Lee (@DianteLee_ on Twitter) has an excellent article explaining how running the ball is really primarily a numbers game. What cost them so dearly was not being able to make positive situations out of even or negative ones, which is where the issues at LB and the talent of the Chiefs OL swung the game.

On the first run of the game, the Chiefs run a shotgun power from a positive box. Their center is able to immediately get into the second level as the tackles and guards wall off each side. Morse takes care of the fill player (Richards), and Hunt gains 8 yards before fumbling to turn the play into a defensive win.

Another example of Morse breaking the run open. Running out of the pistol against a negative box, Morse helps his RG take out Branch, who was on his way to blowing up the play, and still gets his block on the fill player (Van Noy) to get Hunt into the second level.

Here’s an example of the Chiefs game plan winning them the play. The play starts from an even box, but by making Smith the runner and forcing Hightower to choose him instead of Hunt, by the time Hunt receives the option pitch he has nothing but space in front of him and bursts for the easy first down.

This play was very nearly a Patriots defensive win, and an example of why Hunt deserves all the credit he’s getting as well. Malcom Brown (who is very good) blows up the RG and immediately takes away the designed play. Where he made a mistake was in how deep he penetrated. When a DL gets too far downfield it can open up a cutback lane for the running back, which Hunt quickly diagnosed and got to before Brown could disengage. This is still a good play from Brown, but with no one behind him to fill the cutback lane that Hunt found, it becomes an offensive win. Brown could’ve won this play by blowing up his block and then disengaging instead of continuing to drive him back, forcing Hunt to bounce around him instead of cutting behind him, where Van Noy would’ve been waiting for the defensive win.

Finally, another example of the impressive outing by the Chiefs blockers. A simple toss from an even box, but the Chiefs line gets into space and creates a wall for Hunt, who gained more than 50 yards without having to make a single man miss. Also, Devin McCourty is incredible.

Kansas City’s offensive line played very well, specifically center Mitch Morse. Primarily zone blocking, the Chiefs OL were able to wall off multiple defenders with minimal blockers, allowing other blockers to get immediately into the second level, where their athleticism—combined with the Patriots linebackers lack thereof—helped them block in space and gain chunk yardage. This is where the big concern for the rest of the season comes: Are the Patriots LB’s going to be picked on for their lack of athleticism and talent outside of Dont’a Hightower? Additionally, if Hightower misses games throughout the year, who can play? I think the potential answer to that is to bring out more Elandon Roberts and even David Harris, who combined for just 11 snaps this week, and less of Jordan Richards and Kyle Van Noy, who combined for 109.

Van Noy isn’t a significant athletic upgrade over Harris or Roberts, and is less talented than both. Bring him out in obvious passing situations, and let Harris and Roberts handle the early downs. It is worth noting, however, that he was just signed to a 2 year extension, so the Patriots clearly like him. Richards probably just shouldn’t play at all. It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest to see changes made to this group in the form of a free agent signing or a trade (no, not Ninkovich) as we move on through the year. Additionally, the game plan should feature less dime packages and more formations that bring linebackers onto the field. Obviously the game plan will change on a week to week basis, but this weeks plan did not work at all.

Ultimately, my sense after reviewing this game is that it may not be the suffocating run defense of last season, but moving forward it should be closer to that than the display we saw Thursday night. Malcom Brown and Alan Branch were both as good as usual, as was Trey Flowers, and newcomer Lawrence Guy had a decent game as well that can be improved on. The linebackers will be the key to stopping the run this year, and New England, like always, will make needed adjustments.