Just three weeks after giving up 270 yards on the ground to the Tennessee Titans, the New England Patriots run defense had another bad outing. Going up against the Indianapolis Colts and one of the league’s most potent rushing attacks, the unit surrendered 228 yards and a touchdown on 37 non-kneel-down carries.
The outing negated a strong effort by the Patriots’ pass defense, and eventually played a big role in the team losing 27-17.
The question moving forward is now two-fold. What went wrong for New England’s run defense against the Colts, and how can a repeat outing be prevented and potential errors fixed?
Essentially, the Patriots saw a breakdown of three areas.
The first was the Colts’ use of misdirection and pre-snap motion, which forced the defense to play bit hesitant at times. Indianapolis only ended up dropping back to pass 13 times, but the threat of play-action shots down the field, for example, appeared to be in the defense’s head and slowed the group down. In turn, the gap integrity up front and the flow at the second level were not as stout as they should have been on multiple occasions.
Nyheim Hines’ touchdown run in the first quarter is a good example of that, with the play design leaving box safety Kyle Dugger and off-the-ball linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley in no-man’s land:
The Patriots also have to tip their cap to the Indianapolis offensive line. Despite missing starting center Ryan Kelly due to a personal tragedy, the group executed at a high level with backup Danny Pinter lining up in the middle. It generated a consistent push, opened cutback lanes on mid-zone runs, and was able to get good movement on the aforementioned misdirection.
The group as a whole deserves plenty of praise for the performance, as do offensive line coach Chris Strausser and his assistant Kevin Mawae. All of that is especially true given the difficult circumstances.
The Colts’ impressive outing, however, would not have been possible without the Patriots also playing their part. New England suffered multiple technique breakdowns, and failed to show the proper fundamentals to contain running back Jonathan Taylor on a consistent basis.
Taylor’s 67-yard touchdown run that iced the game in Indianapolis’ favor is a good example of that:
With New England selling out to stop the run down three points just outside the two-minute warning, the Colts had a home run opportunity if Taylor just found an opening. The league’s leading rusher was able to do just that because of Dont’a Hightower overrunning the play and Devin McCourty coming downhill too aggressively.
“We just didn’t make the play,” McCourty said after the game. “He cut back inside of us, and it was what we call four-minute and everybody down to stop the run. So, when you got that, a guy breaks one tackle, there’s really no depth to the defense kind of selling out on the run, and he made a good cut. Me and High have to use each other better and make that play.”
That play can be seen as the biggest breakdown given that it effectively ended the game, but it was not the only one for the Patriots. They also did not diagnose plays well enough, going back to that aforementioned touchdown by Nyheim Hines (even though it officially was counted as a pass rather than a run), and furthermore had technique breakdowns with defensive linemen getting stood up or losing control of their gaps too often.
Terms such as “out-physicaled” our “out-muscled” were thrown around after the game, but “out-fundamentaled” might be more appropriate to describe what happened.
At the end of the day, New England ran into a perfect storm. The team’s fundamental breakdowns might not have mattered against a lesser opponent, but it picked a bad time for those to arise. Likewise, Indianapolis’s quality up front and creative designs made life hard for the Patriots and did not allow them to find their footing in the ground game.
Despite all that, though, the group still had some positive moments. Before his long touchdown run, for example, Taylor had gained a manageable 107 yards on 28 carries for an average of 3.7 yards per run. Obviously, though, none of that matters considering that the unit did give up the 67-yard scamper at a critical point in the game.
If there is a silver lining for the team it is that the problems are relatively easily fixed. It all goes back to Bill Belichick’s old “do your job” mantra: the Patriots’ defenders need to show more consistent fundamentals from their technique to their play diagnosis.
“We just have to tighten it up,” linebacker Matthew Judon told reporters after the game. “There’s been some games where we gave up fewer than 40 yards rushing. We’ve been on both spectrums: we played the run well, and we played the run terribly. Tonight, it was a bad night for us. We have to tighten some stuff up, making sure everybody is playing their keys and play what they see, and then just make some tackles.”
Furthermore, the final three games of the season all feature teams with below-average ground games going up against the Patriots. As a result, New England has some time to get its run defense back on track before the playoffs — and potential rematches against the Colts and Titans — await.
The goal moving forward therefore has to be a simple one: learn from the Colts game and don’t let its miscues become a habit.