The New England Patriots made the 2014 version of Chris Johnson look like vintage CJ2K just six short days ago, but after a major injury and two savvy acquisitions, their ability to stop the run might be their defense’s strength.

Over the last week, the Patriots placed Jerod Mayo on injured reserve, gave up 218 rushing yards to the New York Jets and reportedly lost Chandler Jones for a month because of a hip injury. Just when things couldn’t get worse, right?

The Patriots responded Tuesday by trading for Tennessee Titans linebacker Akeem Ayers and reportedly agreeing to a one-year deal with defensive tackle Alan Branch. Ayers and Branch won’t single-handedly replace Mayo and Jones, respectively (no one can), but they’ll at least help fill out the Patriots’ suddenly depleted depth.

Jones’ absence will force head coach Bill Belichick to adjust the defense, hurting New England’s pass rush and boosting its run defense (feel free to have flashbacks to the 2011 season).

In the Patriots’ “regular” defense, against two-wide receiver sets, they likely will switch nearly full time to a 3-4. Here’s what that might look like:

DE: Vince Wilfork, Alan Branch/Chris Jones
NT: Casey Walker
OLB: Rob Ninkovich, Akeem Ayers
ILB: Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins

That’s a great run defense. Unfortunately, this is 2014 and not 1920, when passing was frowned upon and punting was considered strategic.

The Patriots would have nearly 1,000 pounds of two-gapping mass up front, two solid edge defenders and a couple of play-making linebackers in the middle. An issue might arise if the opposing offense tries to pass out of a two-receiver set, however, as it surely will.

Ninkovich and Ayers would rotate as rushers, with the other player dropping back in coverage (unless the Patriots choose to rush five players on every snap), but neither player is known for their pass defense. Ayers also is coming off two knee surgeries, and it remains to be seen if he’s the same player the Titans had from 2011 to 2013.

Wilfork, Branch and Walker can bring pressure but not nearly enough to replace a player like Chandler Jones.

The opposing quarterback likely would have eons of time to throw, and while the Patriots have a great secondary, it might put too much pressure on the defensive backfield.

The Patriots could stick with a 4-3. Here’s how that would look:

DE: Rob Ninkovich, Dominique Easley/Chris Jones
DT: Vince Wilfork, Casey Walker/Alan Branch
LB: Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Akeem Ayers

This alignment still could be stout against the run, but Easley and Jones aren’t quite as immovable as Walker and Branch. Easley and Chris Jones can provide more pressure off the edge, however, despite playing out of position (both are at their best at three-technique defensive tackle).

Hightower likely would play middle linebacker, which lessens his value as a pass rusher, while Collins would play weak-side linebacker with Ayers, who’s at his best in a 4-3, on the strong side. The Patriots likely would have to increase their blitzing if they go with a 4-3.

The Patriots showed some looks in a hybrid 4-3 under this season, and that could be an occasional compromise between a 3-4 and 4-3.

Hybrid front
DE: Rob Ninkovich, Vince Wilfork/Alan Branch
DT: Casey Walker/Vince Wilfork, Chris Jones/Dominique Easley
LB: Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Akeem Ayers

The Seattle Seahawks and Jacksonville Jaguars primarily run a hybrid front in their “regular” defense, and it creates a nice compromise between defending the run and pass. Ninkovich would play the “LEO,” lining up at defensive end wide outside of the offensive tackle, with either Wilfork or Branch playing over the other offensive tackle at five-technique defensive end. Walker or Wilfork would line up at one-technique nose tackle between the center and guard, and either Chris Jones or Easley would line up between the one-tech and five-tech at three-technique defensive tackle, providing some interior pass rush.

The strong-side linebacker (likely Ayers) lines up outside of the five-technique defensive end and off the line, which creates a look that slightly resembles a 3-4, except the “LEO” has his hand in the dirt and the linebacker plays standing up. The strong-side linebacker either can drop back in coverage or rush the passer.

The middle linebacker and weak-side linebacker position themselves in the middle of the defense.

Here’s what it looked like in a game against a two-TE look from the Vikings:


Since the Patriots’ next three opponents — the Chicago Bears, Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts — all primarily play in three-receiver sets, New England will spend most of its time in nickel anyway.

Here’s how that will look:

DE: Rob Ninkovich, Dominique Easley/Chris Jones/Akeem Ayers/Zach Moore
DT: Vince Wilfork, Alan Branch/Casey Walker
LB: Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins

The Patriots will have many moving parts in nickel. If they’re going run heavy, they can stick Ninkovich and either Chris Jones or Easley at defensive end, with Wilfork and either Branch or Walker at tackle. In obvious passing downs, either Ayers or Moore can come onto the field to play defensive end.

Collins or Hightower also could play on the edge, which would move Ayers to linebacker.

The Patriots also could get creative and elect to run a 3-3-5 in nickel:

DE: Rob Ninkovich, Vince Wilfork/Alan Branch/Chris Jones/Dominique Easley
NT: Casey Walker/Vince Wilfork
LB: Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Akeem Ayers

This might be the Patriots’ best option, because Hightower, Collins and Ayers all can rush the passer and rotate snaps in that role, keeping the offense on their toes, not knowing the source of pressure. Collins likely won’t do too much pass rushing this season, however, because he’s by far the Patriots’ best pass-coverage linebacker.

Third Down
DE: Rob Ninkovich, Zach Moore/Akeem Ayers
DT: Vince Wilfork/Chris Jones, Dominique Easley
LB: Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins

On third-and-long, the front seven’s main priority is defending against the pass, which means putting the best rushers and coverage players on the field. Ninkovich, Easley, Hightower and Collins must be on the field, and given Ayers’ past prowess as a rusher, he also would be useful on the edge since the Patriots severely lack a second edge rusher opposite Ninkovich.

Thumbnail photo via David J. Phillip/Associated Press