A better performance from the New England Patriots rush defense in Week 8 against the Chicago Bears was expected; no NFL team can survive being as bad against the run as the Patriots were against the New York Jets in Week 7. In the final installment of this three-part series, it’s time to look at how adjustments and improvements are a constant.
Although the Patriots went on to blow out the Bears, the game was still quasi-competitive on Chicago’s fourth drive of the game in the middle of the second quarter. After an 18-yard catch and run by Matt Forte on the first play of the series and a defensive penalty on the second play, the Pro Bowl running back followed up with an impressive 19-yard run.
The Bears bring 11 personnel onto the field while the Patriots go nickel in a 4-2 alignment. Using motion pre-snap, Chicago stacks two receivers to the left and aligns on the same side the tight end as an H-back (set back from line of scrimmage almost behind the tackle). The Bears also have a third receiver split out to the right. New England uses a heavier nickel front, bringing defensive tackle Casey Walker and defensive end Zach Moore into the mix. Patrick Chung, this time from the weak-side, drops down to the line of scrimmage to provide seven in the box.
Sometimes the best answer to seven- and eight-man fronts, especially if suspecting a run blitz, is the counter and misdirection runs. Cutler takes the snap out of the shotgun with Forte offset to the right.
Post snap, the handoff action and Forte’s first step makes the play look like a sweep run to the strong-side tackle — and that’s exactly what the Bears hope the Patriots defenders are thinking.
The tackle on the weak-side ignores both Chung and Moore as he has his eyes set on the second level defender (Hightower). The Bears motion the low stacked receiver into the backfield, lending the appearance of a possible end-around to the WR. They also pull the tight end (H-Back) around to the weak-side.
The wide receiver motion works to distract Chung, forcing him to take a half step outside to defend the possible handoff to the WR. The pulling tight end delivers a kick-out block on Moore and also moves into the path of Chung. The Bears have operated to near perfection, drawing in the apparent back-side defenders past the true direction of the run.
Forte, who was pressing hard to the strong side, smoothly jump cuts to the backside behind the guard. He then jab steps inside to shift Hightower’s leverage before cutting back outside. With Hightower unable to get around the block in time to meet Forte in the hole, the ball carrier is off to the races for a 19-yard gain.
There were several factors behind the success of this run, including a well-executed blocking scheme and tremendous footwork by Forte, but the Patriots were not without blame. While Chung falls for the ghost motion of the wide receiver in the backfield, taking him out of the play, he’s not the only defender that gets beat.
Walker (#98) is aligned in the A gap and shaded over the inside shoulder of the guard. He does not receive a double-team block from the uncovered center as one might expect, but rather a single block. Once Walker attacks the A gap, the guard only needs to turn the defensive tackle’s shoulders and pin him inside. However, he is also able to drive Walker laterally along the line of scrimmage for about five yards, making Hightower’s job more difficult.
Cheating to the inside over the center, Hightower is faced with an angle block from the weak-side tackle. He is caught flat-footed, leaving him in poor position to take on the block, shed and pursue to the ball.
Because Walker is unable to at least anchor the A-Gap, the ball carrier now has two running lanes – one inside of Hightower and one outside of him. Since Collins is in decent position to fill the running lane inside of Hightower, Forte makes the correct read to the outside, but not before executing the jab step that causes Hightower to flash his helmet inside. That subtle little step from Forte and slight little reaction from Hightower is all the running back needs to cut to daylight down the sideline.
The Patriots run defense still has a way to go. However, while the game was competitive, which was essentially limited to first quarter action only, the Patriots rush defense held up against the Bears ground game. Breakdowns occurred within the spill and force/contain areas of the run defense, but better positioning at the linebacker level helped stall the Chicago rushing attack just long enough to allow Tom Brady and the offense to post 24 points midway through the second quarter — forcing the Bears to become one-dimensional on offense.
Of course, not every game will have Brady completing nearly 86% of his pass attempts and throwing for five touchdowns. The true test for the run defense will come when the outcome hasn’t been decided by halftime.
All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Rewind.
Follow Brian on Twitter @Brian_Filipiak.