The offense’s inability to find the end zone yet again is the most prominent talking point in the aftermath of the New England Patriots’ 22-12 loss to the Miami Dolphins, but the issue was far from the only one that doomed the team in Week 15. The other side of the ball, for example, also had its fair share of problems in a familiar area: New England’s leaky run defense reared its ugly head again.
Even though the Patriots showed some signs of progress against the run in November and into early December, they were trounced in back-to-back weeks now against the Los Angeles Rams and the Miami Dolphins. While the Rams registered 187 yards and a touchdown on 35 carries, the Dolphins ended their game versus New England’s defense with 42 carries for 250 yards as well as three touchdowns.
It was a disaster for the Patriots, who simply failed to win at the point of attack and prevent runs from reaching the second level. When all was said and done, Miami had averaged 6.0 yards per attempt.
“We got to stop the run as a defense and you watch the game, that’s what it came down to,” said safety Devin McCourty after his unit’s terrible performance against the Dolphins ground attack. “If we don’t stop the run, we’ll just continue to see it. I mean, that’s what they did. Early in the game and then really in that second half, that’s what the game turned into, but I don’t think us not stopping was from a lack of effort.”
The team captain was asked to provide a potential answer, but like the Patriots as a whole he could not deliver it.
“If I had that answer, I would gladly share it and we’d probably play better.”
What makes the Patriots’ performance against the run so disappointing was the circumstances. Miami entered the game having averaged just 95.2 rushing yards per game — one of the lowest numbers in the league.
On top of it all, the team was fielding an offense that had six rookies in its starting lineup: quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, running back Salvon Ahmed, wide receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. and offensive linemen Austin Jackson, Solomon Kindley and Robert Hunt. New England had the advantage in terms of experience, despite the team itself fielding a comparatively young team up front, but it did not matter as Ahmed alone ran for 122 yards.
“I can’t really address the run defense. That’s a question for maybe somebody else,” said outside linebacker Chase Winovich. “But I know I could have been better against the run. That’s really all it comes down to. It’s just a matter of these last two weeks, now that this is obviously public news — us not being in the playoffs — just a matter of really doing some thumb-pointing and seeing what I can do better going back, and just evaluating my process and seeing how I could help finish strong these last two weeks and do whatever I can.”
Winovich and company having issues versus the run is nothing new, as noted above. The Patriots, for example, gave up 197 and 190 yards in back-to-back weeks versus the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills in Weeks 7 and 8. In the five games that followed, that number improved to an average of 88.6 yards. The last two weeks, however, were again bad for New England.
Both the Rams and the Dolphins controlled the line of scrimmage in the run game, and as a result the overall tempo of the game.
“I have to coach better, we got to play better, we got to tackle better. It’s a combination of all those things,” said head coach Bill Belichick after Sunday’s game in Miami.
“We have to do a better job of coaching, we have to do a better job of playing, defeating blocks, and we certainly have to do a better job of tackling. It’s a combination of all those things.”
While the run defense was not the only area that cost New England dearly on Sunday and contributed to the team’s already slim playoff hopes going up in smoke, it was among the primary reasons for the loss. Now heading into the final two weeks of the season with no postseason to compete for, the team’s message is clear as cornerback J.C. Jackson mentioned after the game: just play better.
“They kept running the ball. We couldn’t stop it,” Jackson said. “We’ve just got to play better as a team in my opinion, which we will. We will. We will get our s--t together and we’re going to get ready for Buffalo next week.”
Will they really? That is, unfortunately, a valid question based on those last two weeks.