How Can Patriots Fix Run Defense Woes And Other Final Thoughts From Loss To Bills

Plus: Unheralded contributions from Rex Burkhead

by Zack Cox

Nov 3, 2020

Some final thoughts on New England’s 24-21 loss to the Buffalo Bills as the Patriots turn their focus to their Monday night matchup with the winless New York Jets:

— We need to talk about the Patriots’ run defense, which has been downright sieve-like in recent weeks.

The Patriots have surrendered a total of 522 rushing yards over their last three games. Only the Bills and Dallas Cowboys have allowed more during that span. New England’s seven rushing touchdowns allowed in those games led the NFL, as did the 112 rushing attempts they faced.

That last number meant teams — even usually pass-focused ones like Buffalo — believed they could run on the Patriots. And they were right.

New England’s ground-game issues have been particularly acute in the last two games.

In Week 7, a San Francisco 49ers squad that was down to its third-string running back piled up 197 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 37 carries against the Patriots (5.3 per rush).

On Sunday, amid windy and rainy conditions, the Bills’ trio of running backs Devin Singletary and Zack Moss and quarterback Josh Allen ran it a season-high 38 times, totaling 190 yards (5.0 per carry) and another three scores. Buffalo entered the game ranked 32nd in run offense DVOA, which measures a unit’s overall efficiency.

What’s causing these problems for Bill Belichick’s defense? Poor tackling is an obvious place to start.

Typically one of the NFL’s most disciplined teams in that area, the Patriots have missed a total of 19 tackles over their last two games, according to Pro Football Focus — 11 against San Francisco and eight against Buffalo.

Linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley had a team-high three missed tackles Sunday, including one on an 18-yard run by Singletary and another on Moss’s 4-yard touchdown two plays later.

Outside linebackers John Simon and Tashawn Bower, defensive tackle Lawrence Guy and safeties Devin McCourty and Terrence Brooks were charged with one missed tackle apiece. Safety/linebacker Adrian Phillips was not, but Allen made Phillips look like Brian Urlacher to his Tom Brady on a 19-yard scramble.

Unsurprisingly, when the Patriots do not tackle well, their odds of winning decrease significantly.

Since the start of the 2016 season, the Patriots are 50-9 when they miss fewer than eight tackles, according to PFF data. That’s a winning percentage of .847. When they miss eight or more, they’re 11-11 (.500), with six losses in their last seven such outings.

Tackling wasn’t the only issue Sunday, however. There were more than a few plays on which Bills ball-carriers were several yards downfield before they were touched.

Take this sequence from the Bills’ opening possession:

Tight end Tyler Kroft — who’d been overpowered by Deatrich Wise on a run stuff earlier in the drive — sealed off Simon and climbed to Jonathan Jones, driving the smaller slot corner 10 yards downfield. Bentley took a poor angle and was picked up by guard Jon Feliciano. This created a wide hole for Moss, who proceeded to juke past McCourty for additional yardage.

Gain of 21.

One play later, the Bills sent out 10 personnel (four wide receivers). The Patriots countered with seven defensive backs, with McCourty, Brooks and Joejuan Williams playing at linebacker level.

Williams was matched up with wideout Gabriel Davis in man coverage, so when Davis cut across the formation at the snap, Williams went with him. Davis’s line also appeared to cause defensive tackle Nick Thurman to hesitate, unsure of whether the receiver had taken a jet-sweep handoff.

With Feliciano clearing out Simon and guard Brian Winters getting to the second level to block McCourty, Moss had another wide-open hole to run through. Brooks got a hand on him near the goal line but couldn’t prevent an 8-yard touchdown.

The Patriots played their DBs a ton in this game — with Stephon Gilmore and Kyle Dugger out, Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty, Brooks and Phillips all played every snap, and Jones and J.C. Jackson both were over 90 percent — which did make them susceptible against the run.

But Phillips is basically a full-time linebacker at this point, and he and Bentley both were on the field for each of Buffalo’s five longest rushes, including this 17-yarder by Singletary, which Phillips overpursued:

Shaky linebacker play has been a major problem for the Patriots.

Though both have stood out positively at times, the 210-pound Phillips often gets bullied by much larger offensive linemen, and Bentley has been a significant downgrade from Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins. Through six games, he’s the NFL’s sixth-lowest-graded linebacker by PFF.

It was telling that, when asked Monday about Bentley, Belichick noted the third-year pro’s high snap count and leadership qualities but made no mention of his on-field performance.

“Ja’Whaun’s gotten a lot of playing time,” the Patriots coach said. “He’s gotten a lot of snaps in multiple personnel groups. He’s had a good leadership role for us in terms of calling the defense and making adjustments and those kind of things. He’s a young player who needs more playing experience. He’s getting a lot of it and he’s getting better.”

Don’t be surprised if second-round draft pick Josh Uche, who showed promise Sunday in his long-awaited Patriots debut, sees more action in the coming weeks, especially if the groin injury that ended Bentley’s afternoon in the fourth quarter proves serious.

The Patriots also have struggled up front without a true space-eating nose tackle, and the player expected to eventually fill that Danny Shelton-sized void, Beau Allen, now will not play this season after suffering a second injury in practice.

Guy, the team’s top D-tackle, also left Sunday’s game with a shoulder injury, the severity of which remains unclear. The rest of the Patriots’ D-line consists of Adam Butler, Deatrich Wise, Byron Cowart, Thurman and Carl Davis.

Thurman, who officially was promoted from the practice squad over the weekend, has seen substantial playing time in each of the last three games. He lost his footing on Allen’s fourth-quarter touchdown, giving the Bills QB a clear lane to the end zone.

Davis is the Patriots’ biggest body at 320 pounds, but he’s now missed two games with a concussion and has yet to make his New England debut.

While the Patriots are unlikely to be buyers ahead of Tuesday’s 4 p.m. ET trade deadline given their 2-5 record, they should consider adding a viable nose tackle to stabilize this group.

New England needs to figure out its edge rusher situation, as well.

Against Denver, we saw a lot of Shilique Calhoun opposite Simon on early downs, with Calhoun playing a career-high 84 percent of defensive snaps. Against San Francisco, it was rookie Anfernee Jennings. He played 53 defensive snaps (80 percent), equaling his total from the Patriots’ first five games. Chase Winovich, the primary option in that spot for the first four weeks of the season, has seen his playing time crater since the start of the Broncos game.

On Sunday, Winovich played five defensive snaps, Calhoun seven and Jennings zero. The bulk of those outside linebacker opportunities instead went to Bower, a temporary practice squad call-up.

Simon, typically one of New England’s more reliable defenders, has been a constant on one side, but he struggled against the run Sunday, too.

If these run-game issues continue, the Patriots could be on the wrong end of some lopsided scorelines in the coming weeks. The Baltimore Ravens and Arizona Cardinals rank 1-2 in the NFL in rushing yards per game and yards per carry, and both are scheduled to visit Gillette Stadium this month.

— The Patriots still have yet to score an offensive point in the first quarter this season. Their lone first-quarter score to date was Devin McCourty’s pick-six in Week 2. No team has scored fewer first-quarter points this season.

The Patriots also haven’t held a single lead during their four-game losing streak.

— New England converted five third downs in Sunday’s game. Three of them came courtesy of Rex Burkhead.

The veteran running back picked up 8 yards on an old-school option pitch to convert a third-and-short in the second quarter, then made two standout plays after halftime.

He broke three tackles to move the chains on a third-and-10 handoff (the Patriots were highly conservative with their play-calling in this one), then showed superb balance and finish on a third-and-1 on New England’s final drive, driving cornerback Tre’Davious White past the marker while tight-roping the sideline.

Thumbnail photo via Rich Barnes/USA TODAY Sports Images
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