Inside Zone: How the Patriots Run Defense Has Shifted Since the Last Broncos Encounter

New England’s defensive front has undergone subtle renovations since allowing 280 rushing yards to the Denver Broncos in Week 12. (NFL Game Rewind)

NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas

Rush yards were at a surplus when the New England Patriots defense faced the Denver Broncos ground game in Week 12.

Quarterback Peyton Manning handed the football off to his running backs 47 times, and 280 yards were the byproduct. Fifth-year back Knowshon Moreno had a career day, compiling 224 rushing yards and a touchdown on 37 attempts, while rookies Montee Ball and C.J. Anderson combined for 56 yards on 10 attempts.

Whether it was by design or by accident, the Patriots front didn’t give the record-breaking Manning much of a reason to pass to his assortment of receivers – he totaled 150 pass yards. And while the absence of defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly certainly played a part in the Patriots’ failures there, the woes delved deeper than attrition for the then-31st run D.

Much of it came down to how the scheme approached the inside zone.

That approach has since been altered. It may, however, be fine-tuned once again for Sunday’s AFC Championship Game at Mile High.

Now in a traditional 4-2 nickel defense facing “11” personnel with one running back, one tight end, the defensive ends put their hand in the turf and play the seven-technique, and the defensive tackles cycle in the one- and three-techniques.

The defense does so in hopes that the interior handoff will be met by a 320-pound run-stuffer shading the center, not to mention encroaching edge rush on the B- and C-gaps.

So even as the play-side offensive tackle spreads the B-gap, even as the abutting guard attacks interior and breaks for the second level, and even as the double teams ensue, there’s less space to work with.

There’s also less time for the ball-carrier to draw and cut back against an over-pursuing defense.

Head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia went in a more generous direction against Denver on Nov. 24.

The front line spread thin for the majority of the tilt, assembling in essentially a contain with ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich standing up in the nine-technique – far outside the tight end or C-gap.

Sopoaga, meanwhile, predominantly one-gapped the weak-side A and rookie Joe Vellano one-gapped the strong-side B.

It got Manning’s attention. And he made adjustments at the line because of it – in this case, he pulled tight end Virgil Green close to the back side.

When he did so, Ninkovich stood pat. Jones, though, hunched closer to the left tackle. He was still well outside of where Moreno’s run was heading.

Moreno handled the ball and headed for the B-gap. And with Sopoaga already submerged directly between a combo block, Moreno’s window of opportunity widened.

The Patriots were slow out of the gate, primarily because of the way in which they lined up.

If Jones, linebacker Dane Fletcher and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga slid over at the snap, the 5’11”, 210-pounder would have been able to pivot back through the A-gap. If they didn’t, then the runner would have been able to continue on his way.

Those variables are what make the zone run an impactful one.

Yet on this play, Moreno didn’t need to change course to make an impact.

Jones was out-leveraged by left tackle Chris Clark, while the Patriots tackles and linebackers were stifled by the lateral reaches of left guard Zane Beadles, center Manny Ramirez, right guard Louis Vasquez and right tackle Orlando Franklin.

As a result, Moreno had a highway to merge onto.

The pre-snap check and subsequent run gained 18 yards. And there were several more like it.

The Broncos found favorable matchups within the two B-gaps, collecting 106 rush yards on 16 carries there alone, according to Pro Football Focus. And within all three inside lanes, 149 yards were compiled by Denver’s rushing stable.

If the Patriots wanted to keep the ball out of Manning’s hands by persuading run – with the DT crunched and the end dispersed on the play side – it was ultimately effective. But an inability to stop the run was far from it.

Flash forward two months, to the inside zone-running Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round, New England’s front alignment looked slightly different.

That in itself made a difference.

The 20th-ranked Colts rushing attack, consisting of former UConn Husky Donald Brown and 2012 third overall pick Trent Richardson, was held in check. By the final whistle, the two gained only 63 yards on 20 carries – a stagnant, 3.1 yards per carry with a long of 16.

Some of that defensive success can be attributed to the boost ex-Bronco, Seattle Seahawk and San Francisco 49er defensive tackle Sealver Siliga has provided. The 23-year-old castoff has carved a role as a run-clogging starter for the Patriots over the last five games.

Some of that defensive success can be attributed to gap integrity and improved run defense as a whole.

And, lastly, some of that defensive success can be attributed to how the Patriots assembled.

The Patriots still utilized Jones and Ninkovich in extended seven- and nine-techniques; though quite often, both lowered to a three-point stance.

Both did on this particular play, as QB Andrew Luck checked the play at the line, motioning No. 2 tight end Weslye Saunders inline.

Despite the audible, the sticking point remained the edge rush’s distance from the D-tackles. Siliga and Joe Vellano played more three- and four-tech, as displayed here.

This afforded linebackers Dont’a Hightower and second-round pick Jamie Collins more room to make a play, as the inside linemen were posted up one step ahead of the preemptive zone blocks.

So in this instance, as Siliga jumped off the snap from a wider stance, he delayed rookie left tackle Hugh Thornton’s departure for linebacker territory.

Hightower was the beneficiary.

Brown’s carry bounced towards the left B-gap. Siliga had expired seconds and absorbed blocks, leaving Hightower hiding in the tall grass.

By the time Brown committed, Jones and Siliga had forged a nest. And in the middle of it was Hightower, who squared himself to the back.

With no place to run, Brown was met head on by the second-year weak-side linebacker.

It went for no gain.

Small adjustments versus the inside zone made the difference for the Patriots run defense in the divisional round. And signs of progress have been gleaned over the past several games, as New England has allowed 112 rush yards per game since defeating the Broncos in Week 12.

Whether it’s been from the placement of a tackle or an end, Siliga’s emergence, or the overall progression of the front remains unknown. But defending the inside zone is something Belichick and Co. have been focusing on over the last couple weeks, as NFL Network’s Albert Breer reported.

So how will the hard work in practice fare in Denver?

We’ll find out at 3 p.m. ET Sunday.

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