For the New England Patriots’ defense to improve upon last season, young players must take a significant leap.
While the move made a ton of sense from a financial standpoint, the Patriots puts themselves at a disadvantage in 2016 when they traded Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals this offseason. They took a starting player out of the unit, and while a shifting of rushers could replace Jones’ production, it’s a lot to ask for the defense to take another step forward without him.
Defensive tackle Malcom Brown could progress enough to push the defense past its 2015 production, though.
The 2015 first-round draft pick was no slouch as a rookie, but he showed flashes of dominance against the New Orleans Saints in the Patriots’ preseason opener Thursday night.
We focused on the Patriots’ passing offense and defense Friday. Now let’s take a look at the run game.
Defensive end Jabaal Sheard, also fantastic against the run, will get credit for forcing a fumble early in the first quarter, but without Brown, that turnover might not have occurred.
Defensive tackle Alan Branch was pushed out by a double team, which would have opened up a gaping hole in the Patriots’ front seven. Brown, at right defensive tackle, slid down the line of scrimmage while only giving up one yard of leverage, halting Mark Ingram and allowing Sheard to rip out the ball.
Later, early in the second quarter, Brown (on the right side of the line) not only held up against a double team but powered through it to stop running back C.J. Spiller for no gain.
It’s a little too on the nose to compare Brown to Vince Wilfork, but players who are 320 pounds and consistently make plays are rare. Brown was one last season, and he’s already showing improvement one game into preseason.
— Defensive ends Trey Flowers, Rufus Johnson and Sheard also stood out positively in the run game. Linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower also looked as good as ever.
The Patriots’ run defense, which allowed just 78 yards on 30 carries, was more consistent than their offensive rushing attack. But the running game, which picked up 151 yards on 30 carries, certainly had its moments.
The biggest play was a 44-yard run by Tyler Gaffney.
Gaffney showed good vision, took a nice angle and flashed solid speed by outrunning defenders, but center Josh Kline and right guard Ted Karras opened up a massive hole for their running back, and right tackle Cameron Fleming put two Saints defenders on the ground to spring the big run. Gaffney had to shrug off an arm tackle and outrun a linebacker to get into the end zone.
— Rookie guard Joe Thuney was consistently solid as a run blocker. Guard Shaq Mason and tight end Martellus Bennett missed blocks at times. Running back James White showed promise that he could improve as a ball carrier this season.
Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images
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