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Despite ‘meh’ start, the Patriots’ run defense shows improvement from 2020

New England’s defense has allowed 226 rushing yards through two games.

NFL: SEP 12 Dolphins at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“A toll is a toll, and a roll is a roll. And if we don’t get no tolls, then we don’t eat no rolls.”

-Little John (note: don’t let the name fool you, in real life, he’s very big)

And in the same vein, consider the old football-ism oft-repeated by everyone from Chandler Jones to Ed Orgeron to new defensive tackle Davon Godchaux, “First we’re going to stop the run, then we’re going to have some fun.”

So, ipso facto, if we don’t stop no run, then we don’t have no fun. The 2020 New England Patriots learned this firsthand when they finished the season not only at the Jeff-Fisher-Special record of 7-9, but also ended the campaign as one of the league’s worst rushing defenses. If you thought the quarterback numbers from Cam Newton were brutal, you’ve probably seen these already, but just in case we all Men-in-Black erased last year from our collective memory, here we go:

  • Rushing Yards Allowed: 2,103 (26th in the NFL)
  • Rushing Defense DVOA: 32nd in NFL

That’s right, dead last in run defense DVOA.

For those who aren’t familiar, DVOA is a Football Outsiders stat that attempts to measure how good a team is at something compared to how good your average team is at that thing. It also takes game situation and opponents into account. So all that is to say, whether you prefer to go by the old-school season-end total of how many yards the Patriots gave up on the ground compared to everyone else, or whether you prefer an advanced stat that tries to take into account whether you played the Chiefs every week or the Jaguars every week, the takeaway is still the same. The Patriots simply couldn’t stop opponents from gashing them on the ground at will last season, and by the end of the year, it was brutally apparent that the run defense was in dire need of a Red Bull and a Sausage McMuffin.

Two games into the 2021 season, though, with a combination of healthy stalwarts like Lawrence Guy and Dont’a Hightower and high-profile reinforcements like Matt Judon, the aforementioned Davon Godchaux, Kyle Van Noy and rookie Christian Barmore, the early returns in stifling the opponents’ ground game appear at least somewhat promising.

The 2021 Patriots run defense ranks as follows compared with the rest of the NFL, going into Week 3:

  • Rushing Yards Allowed: 226 (14th in NFL)
  • Run Defense DVOA: 23rd in NFL

Funny enough, the Patriots’ overall defensive DVOA is worth brushing their shoulders off; they’re third in the entire NFL, behind only the Carolina Panthers and the Buffalo Bills. After two weeks, New England’s passing defense has been elite enough (second in pass defense DVOA, sixth in passing yards allowed) that it drags the Pats’ overall stat up to No. 3 in total defensive DVOA.

The point is, either by raw yards-and-touchdowns-allowed numbers or advanced stats, the Patriots’ efforts to stomp opposing ground games into oblivion appears to be off to a much better start than how 2020 ended. They may only be middle of the pack compared to run-stuffing behemoths like the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers and gnarly-looking defenses like the Broncos, Saints, and Bears (second, fourth, third, and fifth in rushing yards allowed in 2021, respectively), but, after last season when the Patriots’ defense couldn’t get off the field to save their lives, mediocrity is certainly a welcome improvement.

Alas — or, perhaps, in an exciting plot twist, depending on how you view such things — the Patriots face their first truly elite running back of the season this weekend in, who else, Alvin Kamara, not to mention a pair of quarterbacks that range from “mobile-ish?” in Jameis Winston to...

....these are Davon Godchaux’s words, not mine....

A running back playing quarterback.

There is good news, though. You may have heard that the Saints wide receiver room sans Michael Thomas is looking a little “who is that guy?”, and you’d largely be correct. That could, in theory, open up some defensive resources to slowing down Alvin Kamara, or, conversely, only rushing sparingly, playing light boxes, and daring Jameis Winston to sling it downfield and in the process, do Jameis Winston things.

Or both. Bill Belichick likes that kind of stuff.