NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
Defending the run is a concept that’s simple in theory yet complex in practice.
It’s a concept that the New England Patriots defensive front is still vying to collectively grasp without reinforcement from defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, and linebacker Jerod Mayo.
Currently, New England’s defense ranks 31st in the NFL with 138 rushing yards allowed per game and 26th with 4.6 yards allowed per attempt. And head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have taken schematic measures to avert that trend.
Whether it’s been rooted in matchups or attrition, the front seven has transitioned to more of a 3-4 base of late. The move has bulked the defensive line with an assemblage of rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano, veteran nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga and practice-squad promotion Sealver Siliga. It has also spelled defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich at outside linebacker, a step back from their traditional stomping grounds.
The rise of the three-man defensive line has impacted more than those who align there, however; it has impacted the responsibilities of linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes.
With an already-depleted retaining wall in front of them, the two have seen offensive linemen upfield at a prolific rate this season. So having one less interior disruptor on the field for much of Week 13 against the Houston Texans only heightened it.
Albeit in a 34-31 victory, Houston’s zone blocking scheme, its conclusiveness and its emphasis on gap integrity proved to be a test for Hightower, Spikes, and the rest of the Patriots defense.
Here is a closer look at why.
Six-Yard Outside-Zone Run Through C-Gap
On the Texans’ opening play of the tilt, the offense broke huddle from “11” personnel and arranged in the Pistol formation. Head coach Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison called on a wide receiver fake reverse, outside-zone run from halfback Ben Tate.
New England countered with the 3-4, employing rookie second-round linebacker Jamie Collins outside the tight end, Hightower and Spikes in the hashes, and Ninkovich outside the right tackle.
Houston’s offensive line was prepped to synchronize in leftward blocks and dishevel the outside shoulder of the defenders in their premeditated path. In this orchestration, left tackle Duane Brown would carve around Chris Jones towards Hightower, and right guard Brandon Brooks would jump up towards Spikes. And if tight end Garrett Graham could space second-round linebacker Jamie Collins from the strong edge, a void would be opened a through the C-gap for Tate to run through.
Prior to the snap, Graham shifted to the left side of the line, drawing Hightower to Chris Jones’ back and Spikes closer to the line of scrimmage. Though, from the Pistol, the intended direction of a run play was inherently disguised.
As quarterback Case Keenum handled the snap and angled towards Tate, Hightower stepped forward in an effort to trap the run. But in doing so, indecision trapped him in an unexpected block from the 6’4”, 303-pound left tackle while left guard Wade Smith disarmed Chandler Jones.
Across from center, Spikes fell into a similar façade. He and Ninkovich approached the ball and were frozen by Hopkins’ misdirection. Yet while Ninkovich was able to bat down the arms of right tackle Derek Newton, Spikes was met by the 6’5”, 335-pound right guard. This engagement would effectively take him out of pursuit.
Tate harnessed the football and assessed the two available openings. But with Collins in an arm wrestle with Graham, and Hightower losing a leverage battle between both divides, the running back’s primary path was clear.
Hightower’s entanglement left the C-gap uninhabited. So after pulling the defense near, Tate made his cut towards the left hash marks and exploded through it.
The 6’3”, 270-pound Hightower was able to jump up and out of his stalemate. But his arms were a moment a head of his feet, affording Tate enough time and space to eclipse him.
Tate sprinted ahead to the 50-yard line before fourth-round cornerback Logan Ryan and Hightower were able to tackle him. The play yielded a six-yard gain.
10-Yard Inside-Zone Run Through B-Gap
With 12 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Texans sought to exploit the left B-gap. The offense utilized “21” personnel in a weak-I formation. An inside-zone run by Tate was about to be unleashed.
On the other side of the ball, New England stuck with the 3-4. Chandler Jones and Ninkovich manned the outskirts while Spikes played the strong side and Hightower played the weak. Meanwhile, the defensive line – consisting of Chris Jones, Siliga and Vellano – positioned in the five and zero-techniques.
On this play, Houston’s blockers plotted to pull left once again, with an emphasis on driving over reaching. Fullback Greg Jones was assigned the other Jones at right outside linebacker. Smith was assigned Spikes, Brooks was assigned Hightower, and Ninkovich loomed unclaimed.
Right off the snap, Keenum’s leftward knee bend drew the Patriots front, including Spikes and Hightower, along with it. But that knee bend, in many ways, lured the defense into vulnerability.
Keenum exchanged the ball to Tate, who his way towards the left side of the offensive line in what appeared to be a stretch play.
Spikes responded to Tate’s body language after the transfer, shuffling wide to control the left B- and A- gaps. Although before he could commit to one particular gap, Smith had committed to him.
Hightower met a different fate. The right guard pushed into the center and Siliga, creating extra real estate for the second-year pro. He followed the ball, running laterally with caution.
As Tate zeroed in on the 10-yard line, the closed window between Chris Jones and Spikes had developed into an open one. The right end was shoved back, all while Spikes was knocked upright by the 6’4”, 295-pound left guard.
Tate made his single cut inward. From there, he curved through the trenches unscathed. Hightower wasn’t quick enough to create a roadblock ahead of the B-gap; he traveled parallel to the field and brushed into Spikes.
Houston’s O-line successfully sealed New England’s D-line, and the outside contain was tied up as well. Tate’s scamper journeyed 10 yards and ended in the end zone.
And neither Spikes nor Hightower had the proper angle or path to outrun him.
20-Yard Inside-Zone Run Through A-Gap
With under two minutes to go before halftime, Houston assembled a “21” look from the strong-I formation. The offense was gearing to run an inside zone with Tate.
New England corresponded with a 3-4. On this occasion, though, safety Duron Harmon came down to cover the tight end at the line of scrimmage, which bunched the line in three- and zero-techniques for Ninkovich and Chandler Jones to monitor the C-gaps.
Spikes and Hightower tracked the underneath. Nevertheless, Houston’s downhill blocks were designed to track them. If the three inside men could diagonally target Sopoaga, Hightower and Chris Jones, enough of an A-gap would be created for Tate to run through.
Off the snap, Hightower traced Keenum’s lead back to Tate. This anticipation of the run carried him directly the middle of where the left B-gap was spotted. But with the center departing off of Sopoaga and up to Hightower, No. 54 was hit by the agile blocker and strained into a wide stance.
Spikes, concurrently, kept his eyes up and on the tailback. He would have to take care of the A-gaps as the lone undeterred linebacker in the vicinity.
Tate ran with patience and vision. The closer he could run to conflict, the closer he would be to escaping it.
The 25-year-old ball-carrier veered near and then around Hightower. And that proximity thrust Spikes into his own teammate. At that juncture, Tate planted and propelled through the left A-gap and found daylight.
He bounced outside and into the secondary, where he had one Patriot to beat: free safety Devin McCourty.
After three open-field pivots, he was able to do so. The 5’11”, 217-pounder broke into the end zone from 20 yards out.
Tate finished with three scores, and Keenum added another before the Dec. 1 meeting came to a conclusion.
Houston’s zone attack challenged the discipline, decisiveness and block shedding of Hightower, Spikes, and the rest of New England’s defense. The unit did so with enough enough productivity to gather 121 yards on 28 carries. And 83 of which came from the left of the center.
The Texans’ active front five battled Spikes and Hightower as if they were in a three-point stance. By neutralizing New England’s undermanned line and slanting into the linebackers, they forced the issue.
Houston was preemptive out of the neutral zone. Their synchronicity caused hesitancy. And because each block had a purpose, New England had to find theirs.