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What happened to the Patriots run defense against the Texans?

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The Patriots run defense struggles against Houston. What happened?

Houston Texans v New England Patriots Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

The New England Patriots did not do a great job defending the run against the Houston Texans. The trio of running backs Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue and quarterback Deshaun Watson combined for 174 rushing yards on 33 carries for an impressive 5.3 yards per carry (YPC).

The Texans were successful running the ball all day and their total rushing output wasn’t the result of a single run. They averaged 8.2 YPC in the first quarter, courtesy of the 31-yarder by Lamar Miller, but they also averaged 3.8 YPC, 4.1 YPC, and 5.0 YPC in successive quarters, seemingly getting stronger as the game wore on.

So what went wrong for New England? Did the run defense simply get tired?

It’s important to give credit to the Texans that they never gave up on running the football and that is a crucial reason for their success. Even when the Patriots took a commanding 24-6 lead, Houston responded by running the ball on seven of their next 10 plays.

The Patriots were expecting the Texans to start throwing the football in the face of that deficit and placed undersized defensive tackle Adam Butler on the field. Houston took that as an opportunity to pick up easier yardage and took the rushing yards the Patriots were conceding.

This was a common theme all afternoon, although Butler wasn’t the only target. Houston averaged 7.30 YPC with Butler on the field, the second-most of any Patriots defender with more than 1 snap against the run. The biggest culprit was defensive end Keionta Davis, against whom the Texans averaged 7.94 YPC.

The defensive line deserves the most scrutiny, too, because there wasn’t much differentiation among the linebackers. Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy had similar successes on the edge, seeing 5.04 YPC and 4.83 YPC against, respectively, while Elandon Roberts (4.17 YPC against) and Ja’Whaun Bentley (4.57 YPC against) had more success in the middle.

It’s notable that DT Malcom Brown (5.71 YPC against) and DT Danny Shelton (5.33 YPC against) were not great, either, suggesting that the Patriots entire interior had a bad day. Brown’s and Shelton’s numbers are greatly skewed by Miller’s 31-yard gain- as are Van Noy’s, Bentley’s, and Hightower’s- and all five players had much stronger days outside of that play.

Davis was on the field for that play, too, but even outside of that play the Texans averaged 6.50 YPC against Davis. No matter how you cut it, Butler and Davis were the two biggest targets.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Texans averaged a mere 2.06 YPC when DT Lawrence Guy was on the field, 3.17 YPC when DE Deatrich Wise played, and 3.27 YPC when Trey Flowers was on the field. Perhaps this trio needs to be on the field more often during early downs.

The Patriots run defense struggled in 2017, so any continued weakness in 2018 deserves to be highlighted. Adam Butler remains a valuable player on passing downs, but he needs to be protected when the other team runs the ball- and teams will certainly target him.

And for all the value that Davis showed in the offseason, his trouble against the run should yield more playing time for Wise and Adrian Clayborn.

New England did not do a great job defending the run against Houston, but I’m not yet ready to hit the panic button. The defensive front as a whole did a good job against the run outside of a couple lapses and missed tackles and should be able to get on track- so long as the coaching staff makes the necessary adjustments to hide Butler and Davis from the rushing game.