That’s what happens when a team’s top two defensive tackles and best linebacker are lost for the season and it has no contingency plan. The run defense already looked suspect the first few weeks of the season with Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly healthy. Since then? The middle of the defense has been a sieve.
The defensive tackles get pushed up, over and out, the linebackers overpursue and get caught up in the second level and the defensive backs miss tackles. It’s ugly to watch, especially from a team that had such a strong anchor for so many years in Wilfork.
But it doesn’t look like New England’s porous run defense is going to capsize its season. With Tom Brady at quarterback, the Patriots will be able to force shootouts. And what generally doesn’t help in shootouts? A strong run game, nor a strong run defense.
That’s because teams panic. If one team is passing on nearly every play and getting the ball down the field fast, the other will lose patience and go away from what is working. That’s what happened against Denver last week. It’s what happened against Houston this week.
Even with a banged-up Ben Tate and rookie Dennis Johnson carrying the ball, Houston ran 28 times for 121 yards and four touchdowns. But eventually it was time for Case Keenum to rear back and chuck the ball. And though he threw the ball for 272 yards, he was limited to no touchdowns, an interception and a 50-percent completion percentage.
The pass defense wasn’t perfect, but they did just enough to stop the Texans when the game was on the line with 3:12 left in the game. That unit has suffered injuries, but they’ve been fortunately that they haven’t been season-enders.
The run defense probably isn’t getting any better this season, either. Bill Belichick has seemed to try everything. They went with a bigger alignment, they tried to mix in Isaac Sopoaga, they tried to give Chris Jones and Joe Vellano more rest by mixing in Sealver Siliga, they tried every combination of linebackers. But the same things keep happening. Jones and Vellano can’t hold their ground against double teams and the linebackers aren’t doing a good enough job filling their lanes.
Last week, it seemed like the Patriots had accepted their fate that the run defense was no good and they used it to their advantage by forcing Denver to run, rather than pass with Peyton Manning. That will work against teams with a great quarterback. It remains to be seen if it will work against a team like the Chiefs, who have a strong run game and pass defense.
But with Tom Brady at the helm, it’s much better to have a strong pass defense and poor run defense than vice versa. Because when Brady’s on, he’ll put up a ton of points before the opposing team even knows it’s happening and can adjust their offense.
The Patriots are in a good place heading into the final stretch, even if they have a glaring weakness.