Tag Archives: Patriots running game

Miami’s Defense May Be Without Howard But the Focus Should Be on the Ground

Steve Balestrieri
December 6, 2018 at 7:56 am ET

With the news that Xavien Howard will be a game-time decision to play this week, the Miami Dolphins are possibly going to be missing their best defender on the defensive side of the ball.

Howard, the AFC Defensive Player of the Week has seven interceptions and is Miami’s lock-down corner. If he is able to play (and we feel he will), he’ll probably be locked up with Josh Gordon on the perimeter.

Adam Gase didn’t sound confident that he’ll be able to go this week for the Dolphins who at 6-6 are still very much in the Wildcard hunt.

“If you throw the ball at him and you’re inaccurate he’s not just going to knock it down,” Gase said. “He’s going to pick it off. And it’s an extreme value. He’s one of our best players, if not our best player on that side of the ball. It’s hard to say. But that’s what this game is. And that’s what the league is. We have to make some adjustments on defense. Be smart with that. And you know our guys have to step up. If he can’t go, you’re not going to replace him. But we’ve got to shuffle some things around.”

Torry McTyer would likely get the start if indeed Howard can’t go. McTyer, 6’0, 187 a 2nd-year UDFA from UNLV has started in two games this season (Chicago, Cincinnati) and has a confidence level matching Howard’s. However, the rest of Miami’s secondary has struggled in 2018.

When opposing quarterbacks have targeted any Dolphins defender not named Howard this year, they have completed 68.5 percent of their passes, averaging 8.1 yards per attempt, throwing 19 touchdowns, 12 interceptions for a passer rating of 96.9. Miami has given up the 3rd most explosive plays this year (that is considered to be a 15-yard run or more and a 20-yard pass play or more). The Dolphins have allowed 12 touchdown passes of 20 yards or more thus far in 2018.

But the issues with Miami’s defense rests within their run defense. Remember the Dolphins started the season 3-0 and came into New England riding high. They were blown out in that game 38-7 and have gone 3-6 since because of issues stopping the run.

Miami is currently 30th in the league in run defense, allowing 5.0 yards per carry and a whopping 144.7 yards per game on the ground. The New England game where they allowed the Patriots to run for 175 yards started a bad trend where they gave up 164 on the ground to the Bears, 248 against the Lions, 188 against the Houston Texans, 195 against the Packers and 198 last week against the Bills, although most of those were Josh Allen scrambles, which gashed them badly.

Miami’s 4-3 defense hasn’t gotten great tackle play inside, their consistency has been poor and their linebackers notably MLB Raekwon McMillan and Kiko Alonso haven’t been good against the run either.

The Miami run defense was leaky in 2017 as well and they had hoped to fix it going into the 2018 season. But their first couple of preseason games showed that perhaps that wasn’t the case as they were gashed but then things solidified somewhat. That 3-0 start masked what was still an issue and they’ve been battling this since then.

Unlike in other years when traveling to Miami (2013, 2015 come to mind) when the Patriots went into the games with a walking MASH unit, the Patriots are about as healthy as they’ve been all season.

They attacked a Minnesota defense that was a Top 5 unit against the run and garnered 160 yards on the ground. With Sony Michel back to full health and Rex Burkhead back from IR, look for New England to line up this week and try to pound the ball between the tackles. That should open up play-action passing for Tom Brady and the wide receivers.

This is essentially a playoff game for the Dolphins who have to finish strong for any chance to make the postseason. They face the Patriots this week, travel to Minnesota to take on the Vikings, return home against Jacksonville and close out the regular season on the road in Buffalo.

Last season, the Patriots were caught looking ahead to the Pittsburgh game and were thrashed in every phase of the game losing 27-20 to Miami in a game that wasn’t even close to what the score indicated. That will be a big, big teaching point by Bill Belichick this week.

Lo and behold, the Steelers are again on the slate next week. Don’t expect the Patriots to make that same blunder twice. Last year, the Pats could afford to lose the game and still secure home-field advantage for the playoffs with a win over Pittsburgh. The 2018 version of the Pats does not have that luxury. Miami is on the cusp of a playoff berth themselves.

There won’t be no overlooking them this time. Expect a much better game this week. And look for the Patriots to pound the ball in the running game. We’ll have much more in our keys to the game tomorrow.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news.

Is the NFL’s Pendulum Swinging Back to the Running Game?

Steve Balestrieri
February 12, 2016 at 6:00 am ET

The NFL is a passing league and it is driven by the quarterbacks. With the plethora of talented passers and athletic receivers in the league, it has led to an explosion of passing yards, touchdowns and offenses that love to spread out defenses and find mismatches.

That has led to smaller, faster and more athletic defenses that have to try to keep up with these offenses. Denver’s defense is a prime example, a very athletic, blistering fast unit that uses speed to overwhelm their opponents.

But the NFL is always evolving and the league is trending back to being more run based but at a bare minimum, it is going to be much more balanced in terms of offense. A quick look at the final eight teams that rounded out the NFL’s season from the Divisional Round thru the Super Bowl shows that for the most part,  teams that ran the ball well were the ones standing in the end.

All four of the teams from the NFC were in the top 12 of rushing. Carolina was the #2 rushing team in the NFL averaging 142.6 yards per game. Seattle was the #3 rushing team, even without Marshawn Lynch down the stretch averaging 141.8. Arizona came in 8th with 119.8 yards per game and Green Bay rounded out the NFC at #12 with 115.6 yards per game.

Over in the AFC, Kansas City was the #6 rushing team in the NFL averaging 127.8 yards per game. Pittsburgh came in 16th with 107.8 yards per game. But they lost LeVeon Bell after only six games in 2015 with him serving the first two games of the season on a suspension and then him going down with a season ending injury, tearing an MCL in Week 8.

Denver was right behind Pittsburgh in 17th place in the league averaging 107.4 yards per game. But that number needs to be looked at closer. After Peyton Manning was sat down, and Brock Osweiler took over, Gary Kubiak finally installed the running game as he envisioned it with the QB under center. The results were startling. In the last seven games of the season, Denver averaged 134.9 yards per game, which would have put them right around 5th/6th place over the course of a season.

Only the New England Patriots were the anomaly in the final eight, rushing for a paltry 87.8 yards per game, 30th in the NFL. Their success had more to do with the ability of Tom Brady than anything else and why they made it the conference championship.

It also isn’t surprising that the league’s top five scoring teams (Car, AZ, NE, Sea, Pitts) are also on this list, again only the Patriots are the wildcard with the vast onus being on the passing game. Kansas City finished with the 9th top scoring team in the league.

Does this mean that the NFL is going back to the 4 yards and a cloud of dust days? Hardly, as long as QBs like Brady, Aaron Rogers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger et al. are under center teams are going to throw the ball and do so very well.

But to combat the fast nickel and dime defenses that teams are playing more and more with five and six defensive backs on the field, teams are going back to more of balanced run based approach. It keeps the downs and distances manageable and when facing third and short, teams that run effectively have the option of mixing things up and keeping the chains moving.

The NFL is a copycat league, with the success of both Denver and Carolina having very good running attacks and fast, athletic defenses, look for the other teams in the league trying to duplicate their success. The age of the mobile, big-armed QBs are here and now the defenses will have to adjust accordingly again.

Bill Belichick likes to stay a step ahead of the trends in the game, when the Patriots play their nickel and dime defenses, they frequently do so with extra safeties instead of cornerbacks. Part of the reason is in the AFC East, they play the Bills and Jets, two teams that run the ball extremely well.

Safeties who take the place of linebackers in the big nickel defense have to be able to stuff the run and still be able to cover tight ends and running backs and the occasional slot receiver. Big safeties who can stuff the run and cover will become increasingly sought after as teams play more in their sub-packages than in their base defenses.

What does this mean for New England? Well one last look at the coach’s film from the AFC Championship Game shows that at a bare minimum, they’re going to need a complimentary running game if they want to get back to the big game.

They can’t rely on Tom Brady chucking the ball 80 percent of the time. Being one-dimensional against a very good defense like Denver’s hurt them twice in 2015. Brady took a beating in both games. With him turning 39 this season, they can’t afford to have him going down because the defense is just pinning their ears back.

So while the Patriots haven’t valued the running back position in recent years, perhaps this is a good time, to reverse that trend a bit and spend the money and/or draft picks to get themselves a higher tier running back. They’ve proven they can throw it with the best of teams, but with a viable running game, not only will it make the passing game even more effective, it will limit the abuse your 39-year old QB has to take.

There are some intriguing names out there both in free agency and the draft, several that can be had in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th rounds. The league is trending towards having better rushing attacks again. The Pats are already well equipped to stop those. Now they need to get to work on getting one of their own.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

McDaniels Must Trust Patriots Running Game For Success Down the Stretch

Steve Balestrieri
December 8, 2015 at 7:33 am ET

The Patriots find themselves in relatively uncharted waters this week, losers of two games in a row and facing a resurgent Houston Texans team on the road Sunday night.

The Patriots hadn’t dropped two-in-a-row since early in the 2012 season. What is particularly galling for them is that they’ve held double-digit leads in each of these games and came up short twice. And each loss can be attributed to some degree to the inability to and the unwillingness to trust the running game.

Against Denver they were up by 14 points and facing the top-ranked pass defense in the league. In trying to eat up some of the clock time, one would naturally assume that the running game with LaGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden would be leaned on heavily, especially against a team that is so adept at defending the pass.

But the Patriots ran the ball just once in the fourth quarter and overtime in Denver. Once Rob Gronkowski went down, their options in the passing game were very limited, having already been missing Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and Dion Lewis.

On Sunday against Philadelphia, they moved away from the running game too soon and once the wheels fell off in the third quarter, they had no choice, having to throw nearly on every down to get back in the game. The result in each was that it allowed the defense to pin their ears back and hammer Tom Brady in the pocket. Brady’s been hit 36 times in the last three games and if Josh McDaniels thinks replacing the other weapons on offense is difficult, replacing #12 is a show-stopper.

The Patriots at the three quarter mark of the season are on pace for only 369 carries and 1416 yards at 3.8 yards per carry which would be the lowest total since Bill Belichick’s first season with the Patriots. In the 2000 season they rushed 424 times for only 1390 yards, 3.3 yard average.

Now with a banged up roster on offense the Patriots face the third ranked pass defense in the league in the Texans. It goes without saying that the player they’ll have to account for is JJ Watt who is leading the league again with sacks at 13.5. He’s helped rejuvenate a Texans team that started 1-4 to get their record even at 6-6 and are still in the fight for the divisional lead. He and the oft-injured Jadaveon Clowney can be very disruptive in the passing game.

The Texans are only so-so at defending the run allowing an average of 114.1 yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry. So it would hold true to form that facing a daunting pass defense that the Patriots would try to run more right?

“There are certainly things that we can do as coaches to help put our guys in better positions or in the best positions we can put them in,” said Josh McDaniels last week. “We’ve got to be connected together to do our job and give the runs an opportunity to get started.”

We know that the Patriots are a pass-first football team with Brady at the helm, but with offensive line issues continuing thru the three quarter mark of the season, perhaps it is time for McDaniels to begin to trust the running game more. Every week the Patriots are a game-plan specific team and this week is another opportunity to take some pressure off of the passing game already short on a lot of its weapons.

They can’t afford to keep allowing Brady to get hit so much in the pocket. One thing that was alarming on Sunday after re-watching the tape was that the Eagles frequently dropped eight into coverage. They flooded  the short zones and were still able to bring pressure rushing only three. Former Patriots DC now Texans coordinator Romeo Crennel had to watch the tape of that and will be planning accordingly.

Without Lewis, Edelman and Gronkowski, the Patriots receivers are having trouble getting open as well as holding onto the football (a third of Brady’s incompletions Sunday were drops). Facing a Texans team that can be disruptive against the pass with Watt inside is a great time to keep him busy with some running plays designed to slow him down. This will not allow him to be coming after Brady on every down.

Going into the postseason with a one-dimensional offense is not the recipe for a deep run. With four games to go, it will help the team long-term to get these issues ironed out and bring the running element back into the offense. McDaniels will have to trust the backs to get it done and can’t be too quick to pull the plug again. With the winter weather beginning to creep back in, the time is coming when the passing offenses begin to slow down and an effective running game becomes essential.

The quarterback’s health may depend upon it.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.