After a Week 7 struggle against the running attack of the New York Jets ‒ the first game without linebacker Jerod Mayo ‒ the New England Patriots run defense has turned a corner. The recovery started with a more competitive performance against the Chicago Bears in Week 8, followed by a dominant effort (40 yards on 15 rush attempts) versus the Denver Broncos in Week 9. The Patriots carried their momentum through the bye week and into Week 11, squashing the running game of the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.
The key to holding down the high-powered Colts offense largely revolves around limiting quarterback Andrew Luck and his receiving corps. But running back Ahmad Bradshaw ‒ who entered the contest with a 5.1 yards-per-carry average, placing him among the top ball carriers in the league statistically ‒ has been a highly productive weapon this season. Indy’s ability to move the ball consistently on the ground is one of the reasons why the team leads the league in time of possession.
However, in this showdown between AFC division leaders the New England defense trampled the Colts offensive line, leaving Bradshaw (7 carries, 4 yards) and backfield cohort Trent Richardson (7 carries, 0 yards) battered and literally broken.
Much like against the Broncos, the Patriots defensive front not only dismantled their opponents’ ground game in the trenches, they did so mostly out of their nickel defense with only six or seven defenders in-the-box ‒ a necessity against pass heavy offenses that utilize spread formations.
Don’t Try Vince
Early in the first quarter, the Colts use a 2×2 receiver set with Richardson as the lone running back. Respecting the pass-heavy formation, the Patriots counter with their nickel package using a 4-2 alignment up front. While the New England offensive line executed their blocking schemes to near perfection, Indianapolis was nothing short of miserable in this regard. Watch the big guy in the middle ‒ defensive tackle Vince Wilfork ‒ go to work:
With left end as the intended attack point, the Colts interior line has an unpleasant run-in with Wilfork, who is aligned in a 2-technique (inside shoulder of the guard). The Colts seemingly use a combo-block scheme calling for left guard Jack Mewhort (#75) to work with rookie center Jonotthan Harrison (#72) on a double-team of Wilfork. Mewhort’s chip on Wilfork is ineffective, and the guard compounds the issue by moving on too soon from this assignment to meet a second-level defender. This leaves Harrison one-on-one at a poor angle and enables Wilfork ‒ whose eyes follow Richardson the whole way ‒ to easily drive along the line of scrimmage and plug the intended running lane.
On the backside of the play, Chris Jones (#94), aligned head up over right guard Hugh Thornton (#69), is allowed to initially come in unblocked. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus (#78) then delivers a cut-off block that ultimately causes more harm than good as he pushes Jones into Harrison’s hindquarters. With defensive end Akeem Ayers setting the edge and squeezing the alley tight for his teammates to fill on the run side, the Indy rush attempt goes for no gain.
Overpowering the Blocker
Later in the quarter, the Colts continue their run-on-first-down approach, trying to open up play-action and create easier conversion opportunities on later downs. Here, the Colts have 11 personnel on the field with Luck in the shotgun and Bradshaw offset left. The tight end aligns on the left and three receivers bunch on the open side of the formation. New England is once again in the nickel using a 4-2 alignment but safety Patrick Chung is drawn into the box by the tight end’s positioning:
The inside zone run shown above requires a double-team block by left tackle Anthony Castonzo (#74) and Mewhort on Wilfork. Bradshaw’s initial point of attack will be to the inside of the weak-side guard, Thornton (#69). In theory, this should allow the Colts to have five blockers against four defenders.
However, as on the previous play, Wilfork is able to stay parallel to the line of scrimmage and force his way into the running lane. With read one sealed off, Bradshaw looks to cut back to the strong side. At the same time, Castonzo peels off his block on Wilfork and seeks out the second-level defender — linebacker Dont’a Hightower. While Castonzo appears to gain leverage to the inside on Hightower, the linebacker rips through the block, staggers the tackle, and brings down the ball carrier with a little help from his friends for a minimal gain.
Wilfork singlehandedly flips the Colts numbers advantage around once he clogs the hole and spills Bradshaw to the left, where the Patriots have three defenders versus two Indy blockers.
Masters of Disguise
To close out the first quarter, Indy deploys 12 personnel on another 1st-and-10 run attempt. The Colts have two tight ends aligned to Luck’s right and Bradshaw set deep in the backfield as the lone running back. In response to the two tight end set, the Patriots utilize 4-3 personnel while Wilfork takes a breather on the sideline. Dominique Easley (#74), Jones, Alan Branch (#97) and Rob Ninkovich set up along the defensive line with Jonathan Casillas inserted at weak-side (Will) linebacker. A team of many looks and techniques, New England uses a 4-3 under front, which gives the appearance of a 5-2 alignment with Jamie Collins at strong-side (Sam) linebacker sitting head-up over the tight end on the wing.
The Colts attempt a stretch run to the strong side with the center and right guard doubling Branch, while the twin tight ends do the same on Collins. This creates a one-on-one matchup between Ninkovich and the right tackle Cherilus:
In reality, it’s not much of a matchup at all. Off the snap Ninkovich’s initial step flows with the blocking action parallel to the line of scrimmage, bringing Cherilus with him. Since the step is parallel, not forward, Ninkovich does not allow Cherilus to engage him. Reading the running back and ignoring the motioning wide receiver on the fake end-around, Ninkovich quickly reverse-pivots and cuts through the feeble, off-balance block attempt from Cherilus. The tackle crumbles to the ground. With the difficult part done, Ninkovich positions himself and drags down Bradshaw for a loss.
All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Rewind.
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Brian Filipiak knows about proper blocking technique, the basics of run defense, how to defeat an overload, and the point-of-attack.