Dont’a Hightower Has Bounce-Back Game As Patriots’ Run Defense Shows Improvement Against Browns (Film Review)

Bill BelichickThe Patriots’ run defense could be improving.

It looked much better against the Browns, at least.

However, we won’t know if that improvement was just a one-week occurrence until New England takes on Miami in Week 15. Cleveland ranks 28th in rushing yards per game and 25th in yards per carry, after all.

The Patriots limited the Browns’ running backs to just 47 yards on 22 carries for 2.1 yards per carry. On the season, Cleveland’s running backs are averaging a slightly better 3.2 yards per carry.

-The Patriots were run on most when they were in a 4-3 with Chander Jones, Chris Jones, Sealver Siliga, Rob Ninkovich, Jamie Collins, Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower. That unit allowed 8 yards on six carries for 1.3 yards per carry.

-A nickel package of Jones, Jones, Siliga, Ninkovich, Hightower and Spikes was run on four times for 14 yards for 3.5 yards per carry.

-A 4-3 of Jones, Jones, Siliga, Ninkovich, Hightower, Collins and Dane Fletcher was run on three times for 12 yards for 4 yards per carry.

-A nickel package of Jones, Jones, Siliga, Ninkovich, Collins and Hightower allowed 2 yards on two carries for 2 yards per carry.

-A nickel package of Jones, Jones, Siliga, Ninkovich, Collins and Fletcher allowed 0 yards on two carries for 0 yards per carry.

-Jones, Jones, Joe Vellano, Ninkovich, Collins, Spikes and Hightower were run on once for 2 yards.

-Jones, Jones, Siliga, Vellano, Ninkovich, Fletcher, Spikes and Hightower were run on once for 2 yards.

-Jones, Jones, Vellano, Ninkovich, Hightower, Spikes and Fletcher were run on once for 3 yards.

-Jones, Vellano, Siliga, Ninkovich, Hightower, Spikes and Collins were run on once by a running back for 0 yards (they also allowed Josh Gordon‘s 34-yard run after Chandler Jones and Hightower overpursued on the reverse).

-Finally, Jones, Jones, Siliga, Isaac Sopoaga, Vellano, Ninkovich, Hightower, Spikes and Collins were run on once for 1 yard.

Basically, every unit was successful. Jones, Jones, Siliga, Ninkovich, Hightower, Fletcher and Collins gave up the biggest run, a 7-yarder. That kind of makes sense. Spikes is the best run-stopping linebacker, and Collins is probably the worst.

The Browns have two running backs in Willis McGahee and Fozzy Whitaker who haven’t found much success against any defense this season. Their tight ends have trouble getting much of a push, and their guards have struggled in the run game all season.

With that out of the way, let’s go through this week’s film review.

QUARTERBACK

Tom Brady had an incredible fourth quarter, but his receivers struggled with drops earlier in the game. Here’s how I broke down Brady’s 20 incompletions, in order:

1. Brady overthrows Rob Gronkowski
2. Gronkowski drop
3. Julian Edelman drop
4. Brady in Ahtyba Rubin‘s grasp, throws at LeGarrette Blount’s feet
5. Brady intercepted, Josh Boyce can’t cut in front of D’Qwell Jackson
6. Edelman drop
7. Shane Vereen drop
8. Phil Taylor swats the ball at the line
9. Boyce drop on screen
10. Danny Amendola drop
11. Gronkowski started calling for pass interference, didn’t end his route
12. Brady throws at Amendola’s feet
13. Edelman has to dive, drops pass
14. Brady bounce-passes screen to Amendola
15. Paul Kruger breaks up screen to Vereen
16. Brady throws low to Vereen
17. Brady throws low to Vereen, bounces off his hands
18. Intentional grounding toward Edelman
19. Brady throws at Vereen’s feet
20. Brady spike

Brady’s interception was ugly. Vereen, Gronkowski and Amendola looked more open than Boyce, who probably could have broken up Brady’s pass, which was headed directly for Jackson.

Overall, though, it was a strong game for Brady against a tough defense.

RUNNING BACKS

Vereen had a remarkable game, despite his drops. When healthy, Vereen is one of the premier pass-catching backs in the NFL. He wasn’t finding much space in the run game, however, despite his 6-yard touchdown.

Blount was running hard for the second game in a row. It appears he’s still running with a lower pad level, which is helping him bounce off defenders. Blount also had a long reception. It was his first catch of the season.

Stevan Ridley didn’t have as much success as Blount. Ridley still hits holes faster than Blount, but Blount is running harder.

James Develin was used as a fullback and tight end. He ran an impressive route on his 31-yard catch. Develin even spent some time lined up out wide.

WIDE RECEIVERS

Edelman was having a down game until the fourth quarter, when Brady looked to his “Z” receiver four times on New England’s second-to-last drive. Edelman had three drops and had some trouble gaining separation from Joe Haden early.

Amendola had some key receptions and was getting open frequently. Amendola’s probably not 100 percent on his hurt groin, but it appears he’s getting stronger as the season progresses.

Boyce was a pleasant surprise at the “X” receiver spot. He was most impressive after the catch, but he was also running sharp routes to get open. He had an ugly drop on a screen, but Brady obviously trusted him enough to target the rookie on the final drive, when he drew a pass interference flag.

TIGHT ENDS

Gronkowski wasn’t his usual dominant self even before tearing his ACL and MCL. The Browns did a nice job doubling the big tight end.

Matthew Mulligan showed some impressive leaping ability when he attempted to hurdle Haden, though it did not work. Mulligan had a strong day at the office in the run-blocking department.

OFFENSIVE LINE

New England allowed a lot of pressure to the Browns. Here’s how it broke down:

Nate Solder: five pressures, including one sack
Logan Mankins: seven pressures, including one sack
Ryan Wendell: zero pressures
Dan Connolly: four pressures
Will Svitek: seven pressure, including two sacks

Wendell had a tough time in the run game. Mankins did a nice job opening holes for the backs, however. He threw a key block on Vereen’s touchdown.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Chandler Jones had a tough matchup against Joe Thomas, though he did still generate five pressures. Check out this week’s pressure charting stats below.

Rob Ninkovich: 1 sack, 1 QB hit, 9 hurries
Chris Jones: 1 QB hit, 5 hurries
Chandler Jones: 1 QB hit, 4 hurries
Sealver Siliga: 1 QB hit, 2 hurries
Joe Vellano: 1 hurry

Chandler Jones was active in the run game, though he did miss a tackle (along with Spikes) on a screen to Whittaker.

Chris Jones was much better than in weeks past, all around. He held his ground much better, mostly facing off against John Greco and Jason Pinkston. He overpursued in the run game at times, but he also got off his blocks well and combined with Siliga to close some rushing lanes.

Ninkovich had another game proving why he’s one of the better all-around defensive ends in the NFL. On top of pressuring Jason Campbell 11 times, he also set the edge well and swung around to the right side a few times to make plays in the run game.

Siliga was a major improvement over what New England has seen at nose tackle this season. He did a better job of taking on double teams, allowing his linebackers to roam free, and got a strong push in the run and pass game when he was single-teamed. It’s too early to crown Siliga the savior of the defensive line, though he’s looked good in two games.

Siliga was cut by the Seahawks and 49ers and traded by the Broncos. It would be odd for player to emerge after being released by two smart franchises and traded from another.

Vellano and Sopoaga played sparingly (Sopoaga got just two defensive snaps). Vellano was more consistent when he wasn’t forced to be on the field 80 percent of the time.

LINEBACKERS

Hightower had a very nice bounce-back game. He should have been credited with a forced fumble and recovery in the first quarter, but the officials blew the whistle too soon, citing forward progress. Hightower covered well out of the backfield. He wasn’t getting caught up at the second level nearly as often in the run game, either. I would credit that to better play up front and benefiting from a switch to a 4-3 from the 3-4. Hightower was also relying on his instincts more in this game.

Collins had another solid outing, though it appeared he lost track of Jordan Cameron twice down the stretch in coverage. Collins showed off his vertical leap with a swat.

Spikes wasn’t quite as active as we’re used to seeing. New England was wise to rotate its four linebackers. Fletcher played well, too.

Check out how the linebackers fared in the pass rush below.

Dont’a Hightower: 1 QB hit, 1 hurry
Dane Fletcher: 1 QB hit
Brandon Spikes: 1 hurry

Check out their pass coverage charting stats below.

Jamie Collins: 1-2, 21 yards, PBU
Dont’a Hightower: 2-4, 6 yards
Dane Fletcher: 0-1

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Here are the defensive backs’ pass-coverage charting stats:

Aqib Talib: 5-7, 141 yards, TD, holding
Steve Gregory: 3-3, 33 yards
Logan Ryan: 2-4, 31 yards
Kyle Arrington: 2-4, 19 yards, PBU
Alfonzo Dennard: 0-1

Talib and Gordon were physical all game. It appeared the refs were letting them play for the most part. There was the odd snap when Talib was called for illegal contact. Gordon grabbed Talib’s facemask, Talib brought the second-year receiver down and the cornerback was flagged. Talib then stayed down while Gary Barnidge ran 40 yards past Devin McCourty for a touchdown. It appeared Talib thought Gordon would be penalized.

Ryan had a little trouble down the stretch but overall had a great game as the team’s other starting outside cornerback. Arrington had a pass breakup and was targeted just four times. He was matched up with Davone Bess most of the game.

Dennard was targeted just once while playing 17 snaps against the pass. He was typically covering Greg Little while Ryan was out of the game. Gregory had some trouble with Cameron.

McCourty did a nice job patrolling the back of the field once again, though he did let Barnidge get by him on the 40-yarder. McCourty got caught up in traffic with Talib and Gordon went down.

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