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The Patriots get too cute when they dare the other team to run the football

Can a bad defensive unit get even worse? The Patriots found out the last two weeks.

Minnesota Vikings v New England Patriots Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images

In the Patriots’ complex defense, there are a lot of moving parts. Man defense. Zone defense. Zone with man underneath. 3-4 defense. 4-3 defense. Cover zero pressures. I haven’t even scratched the surface of the defensive playbook.

While the secondary and linebackers see players play multiple roles, the defensive line roles stay relatively constant. Danny Shelton and Malcom Brown play almost exclusively defensive tackle. Lawrence Guy covers base DE or 4-3 DT. Kyle Van Noy and Adrian Clayborn are sub package defensive ends. Adam Butler is a sub defensive tackle. The exception of course is Trey Flowers.

Charting Flowers’ last two games by alignment, he has played five different positions across the line ranging from 9-technique defensive end to nose tackle. His most common alignment over those games is his natural 4-3 DE position, but for only 31 out of his 89 total snaps (less than 35% of the time). The most recent wrinkle in the Patriots defense has been playing Flowers more over the center, which has been his second most common alignment, 23 out of 89 snaps (26% of the time) over the last two weeks.

What Bill Belichick tries to do every game is take away the biggest threat on the opposing offense. For the last two games, that has meant utilizing a lighter defensive front to lend more help to the secondary against the pass. Danny Shelton’s back-to-back healthy scratches confirm that. Belichick daring the other team to run against a lighter front isn’t a new concept. Perhaps the most notable example is the 2013 game against Peyton Manning and the Broncos when the Patriots let Knowshon Moreno rush for 224 yards in order to neutralize the Broncos’ record-breaking passing offense. But against Kirk Cousins and Ryan Tannehill? You have to question the strategy.

Over the last two games, the strategy had opposite results: a dominant 10-point effort against the Vikings was followed by a dud against the Dolphins. The one constant has been poor run defense; 284 yards allowed on 8.4 yards per-carry is a problem any way you cut it. While the Vikings and now-fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo inexplicably ran the ball only 13 times compared to 46 dropbacks, Adam Gase and the Dolphins carved the Pats up for 189 yards on the ground on an even run to pass ratio. They were gaining so much on the first down runs that they didn’t face a third down on ANY of their touchdown drives.

When tracking the yards per carry according to the alignment of Trey Flowers, it’s clear that the Dolphins studied the Vikings game film and knew where to attack based on where he was on defense.

Flowers at nose tackle

Against the Vikings, Flowers lined up over the center 13 times, and on 10 of those plays, he was the only defender with his hand on the ground. The Vikings ran the ball only once against that front. The Dolphins decided to take what the Patriots defense gave them... and more.

This Sunday, the Patriots made the strange decision to START Flowers at the nose, playing him there even on typical running downs. The result was predictable: 3 rushes for 54 yards on the opening drive.

After the 1st drive, Belichick never went back to Flowers at nose tackle except in obvious passing with the sub defense. Adam Butler played more snaps at the nose in sub, with Flowers usually playing a 9-tech position on the edge. The Dolphins would rush the ball with Flowers at NT only twice the rest of the game, for a total of ten yards, but the damage was done, with Belichick scrambling to improvise the defensive game plan after a five play opening drive. Having established the run, play-action and shots downfield opened up for Miami, and Tannehill had his best game of the year.

Flowers at 3-4 and 4-3 defensive end

When Flowers lined up a defensive end, with a bigger tackle or two in the middle, the Dolphins struggled to move the ball on the ground. The Patriots were a much more balanced defensive front. When Flowers was a 3-4 DE, the Patriots stuffed Miami to the tune of -2 yards on 3 carries. As a 4-3 DE, they gained 36 yards on the ground on 8 attempts, with Flowers forcing a fumble on Frank Gore from that position.

It’s difficult to draw a definite conclusion on a sample size of two weeks and 34 rushes, but when looking at the whole season statistics... it confirms that the run defense has not been good on early downs... and has absolutely cratered the past two weeks.

I used Smart Football’s directional rushing success tool to analyze early down runs by backs. For anyone interested in advanced football stats, this, as well as the plenty of other metrics on their site, is a great tool to place a more accurate value on a football play, since not all situations are equal. For example, a 1st and 10 run for 5 yards is “successful” because it sets up 2nd and medium, while a 2nd and 20 run for 6 yards is “unsuccessful” because it brings up 3rd and very long.

The Patriots have allowed a successful rush on 1st or 2nd down well over 50% off of center or guard
Over the last two weeks, opponents have had a 72% (!) success rate on 1st down. The defensive interior remains porous.

For context, the league average this year for rushing defense success on 1st and 2nd down is 48% and 45% respectively. The only teams worse against the run on first down than the Patriots: Bengals, Chiefs, and Raiders. Gross.

If I’m the Patriots, I trash this strategy for the rest of the year. As Rich Hill mused this weekend, the interior has been bad and needs a makeover after the season. I can’t argue with anything he said. Akiem Hicks (in hindsight, a terrible move to let him walk) isn’t walking through that door.

With all of the talk about playing complimentary football and playing to the strengths of the existing team, leaving an already bad interior defense out to dry seems like a pretty shitty idea. It’s entirely plausible that playing Trey Flowers more at the nose tackle isn’t the main issue with the run defense. But when looking at the full season trends, it’s clear that it definitely isn’t a positive factor, and it turns what was already a weakness into a borderline untenable issue.

The strength of the 2018 Patriots defense is in the secondary. They have Stephon Gilmore playing like the best cornerback in the game. They’ve gotten surprisingly solid play from an older vet and a young undrafted rookie on the other boundary. And while they have gotten a lot criticism — both deserved and undeserved — this season, the Patriots’ safety group continues to be among the most versatile and deep groups in the league. If the Patriots are going to make it back to the Super Bowl, the secondary must carry this defense, in a league dominated by passing more than ever. The perfect test looms near: Sunday @ 4:25, in the heart of Pittsburgh.