The New York Jets rolled up 218 yards against the New England Patriots run defense. What went wrong for New England? Part 1 of this four-part series explores what things look like when they go right, Part 2 on the failure to fit, Part 3 the failure to flow and here, the dangers of losing the edge.
Part 4 – Livin’ on the Edge
We began our research by looking at the basics of run defense – including a successful demonstration by New England – before moving on to examples of failed execution in filling gaps and flowing to the play side. As we wrap up this series, we’ll see that proper interior filling and responsive flow aren’t always enough to get the job done – players must choose correctly among possible assignments, and failure to do so can lead to a running back-breaking free.
The run defense didn’t get much better for the Patriots to begin the second half against New York. With the ball at their own 20 to start the third quarter, the Jets go shotgun using tight end Jeff Cumberland as a split back while the Patriots stick with their 3-4 personnel.
Pre-snap, the Jets will motion a wide receiver behind the split backs. While the ball will not be handed off to the motioning receiver, this action will serve to hold back the force defender, left defensive end Rob Ninkovich, in his contain assignment.
At the snap, Cumberland will pull around from the strong side of the formation to meet Ninkovich while running back Chris Ivory presses hard towards the A gap. The Jets utilize a double-team block on the nose tackle and single block Vince Wilfork, who is able to spill his blocker and close the hole , forcing Ivory to bounce outside.
In our Part 1 breakdown, in which the Patriots properly executed their spill, force, and alley assignments, Ninkovich was able to maintain a solid edge and free up the safety to clean up the ball carrier. This time, Ninkovich is caught out of position. While he is square to the line, he has lost outside leverage, allowing Cumberland to seal him off as Ivory cuts further outside. The combination of the pre-snap receiver motion and Cumberland’s pull block seems to create disruption in Ninkovich’s read.
The linebackers, drawn to the initial press up the middle by Ivory, are caught sagging back and left to pursue the ball carrier from the backside. Free safety Devin McCourty caps off the shoddy run defense with a slow run/pass read as he starts from the NY 34 and drops back to the NY 40 before recognizing run and bringing down Ivory after a 16-yard gain.
Just two plays later, the Jets, facing 2nd and 3 at their own 37, will again deploy 11 personnel, this time using the tight end (Cumberland) in line on the short side of the field. The Patriots counter with nickel personnel and bring strong safety Patrick Chung to the line of scrimmage on the open side of the formation (away from the tight end).
With Chung run blitzing from the weak side and the spill defenders gaining leverage and maintaining gap integrity in the middle, Ivory has to bounce the run to the strong side. Instead of setting the edge, Ninkovich seems to abandon the force contain assignment and take on a pair of blockers in Cumberland and right tackle Breno Giacomini in the C gap.
While there is a secondary force defender nearby in slot corner Alfonzo Dennard, this appears to be an incorrect run fit by Ninkovich, especially since Wilfork is the one originally receiving a double-team block from Colon and Giacomini. Even if Ninkovich wants to be aggressive in this situation, the proper run fit seems to be the D gap outside the tight end.
By choosing the C gap, Ninkovich has also unwittingly put the tight end in better position to break off him and complete a combination block on linebacker Jamie Collins at the second level.
And while Dennard disengages from his blocker and maintains a decent enough edge to funnel Ivory into the alley, Collins is unable to cap the ball carrier head on as he instead meets Cumberland in the hole.
With Ivory evading Collins in the alley due to Cumberland’s block, the running back is able to spring ahead for a 13-yard gain.
The Jets would go on to finish the drive with a 1-yard rushing touchdown by Ivory, taking a brief 19-17 lead. The 11-play drive included 6 rushing attempts for 43 yards.
As the Patriots were set to receive the ball back, the television broadcast showed a seemingly frustrated Bill Belichick pulling Ninkovich aside for a quick coaching moment. It was a simple one:
KEEP. RUN. CONTAIN.
Stopping the run is very rarely a one man show. To do it consistently, no matter the opposing talent and scheme, each defender must remain disciplined in their assignment. All it takes is one freelancer to go off script and the whole team is losing the edge, gap integrity, and receiving an earful from the coach in the gray hoodie.
Find all 4 parts to this primer on defending the run here: Part 1: When things go right; Part 2: Failure to Fit; Part 3: Failure to Flow; and Part 3: Losing the Edge.
All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Rewind.