Spills, Fits, and Rob Ninkovich: Patriots Run Defense Primer

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.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Part 1 – Patriots Run Defense Primer

Defending against the run is an art form of sorts – a choreographed routine where each participant has a role to play. If one fails to perform, the whole company will be out of sync. Aside from the defense recognizing a run as soon as possible, the first key to defending almost any rushing attempt is to get the ball carrier to move laterally by taking away the immediate upfield running lanes/gaps.

In a one-gap scheme, each defender in the front is responsible for a single gap/running lane. The defender will typically line up in or shade towards the gap he intends to fill/penetrate. This can also include the inside linebackers, who have assigned gap responsibilities on runs at them and will scrape/flow towards a gap on runs away from them. One-gap linemen look to disrupt blocking schemes via penetration into the backfield.

In a two-gap scheme, each defender is responsible for the gap to either side of the offensive lineman. A two-gap defender, which can also be a linebacker off the line of scrimmage, is usually easy to identify as he will be aligned almost head-up on the blocker. Two-gap linemen look to disrupt the blocking schemes via clogging lanes and tying up multiple blockers.

To simplify, one-gappers attack the gaps/running lanes while two-gappers attack specific offensive lineman.

Some teams’ systems, like the Patriots, will use a hybrid scheme in which there is a lineman one-gapping and another two-gapping on the same play. No matter the scheme, the end goal is the same: if unable to penetrate the backfield for a stop, the defender(s) will aim to at least bounce the ball carrier outside. In football terms, this is often referred to as a “spill” because you are “spilling” the ball carrier in a certain direction.

With the spill defenders sending the runner to the outside, the “force” or “contain” defender (often the defensive end, outside linebacker, or even a defensive back) will then attempt to funnel the runner back inside. The force defender has the difficult job of setting the edge, often doing so against the block of the run side tackle or tight end; If unable to shed said blocker, he needs to maintain outside leverage on him while remaining square to the ball carrier. If taken too wide, a dangerous running lane will emerge between the force defender and the closest spill defender.

When the spill and force defenders do their jobs, the ball carrier will be left looking for creases. And that brings us to the last piece in this synchronized dance: the remaining linebacker “fits” and the alley defender. Any gaps not already fitted by the spill and contain defenders need to be plugged when the ball carrier is forced back inside. While the linebackers, based off the pre-snap read of the line techniques, generally have an idea of where gaps should emerge, it is not an exact science since the opponent can use various man and zone blocking schemes as well as misdirection runs. This is why linebackers are asked to read and react to keys like hand-off and ball carrier direction, or movement of the offensive line, or anything else that might tip the offense’s intentions, and flow to the play side before plugging a gap.

The defender positioned between the widest spill defender and force contain defender is referred to as the alley defender, which can be an in-the-box safety, nearest run support defensive back, or free linebacker. If the ball carrier cuts back through this more or less intentionally created running lane, the alley defender must be in position to make the tackle.

This is also why the edge has to be squeezed tight and not forced too wide by the contain defender — it’s supposed to create an alley, not an expressway.

If all of the above is executed soundly, the ball carrier should cover more yards running side-to-side than upfield. Week 7 against the Jets, the Patriots defense offered an exemplary demonstration of just how this can – and should – work, and it came on New York’s very first run play.

On 1st and 10 with 13:31 left in the 1st quarter, New York is in the i-formation with 20 personnel on the field. The Patriots have nickel personnel on the field in a 4-2-5 alignment with the corners pressing, one safety dropping into the box, and one safety deep.



Using a man-blocking scheme and a lead block from the fullback, the run is designed to split the center and left guard on the defensive weak side (occupied by just 3 of the 7 Patriots in the box). While at first there is a significant running lane through the A gap, the interior tackles ‒ Vince Wilfork and Chris Jones ‒ are able to push their single blockers back and across the line of scrimmage to close the hole. The linebackers will still face second-level blockers, but now at a shallower depth due to the push and fits up front. The spill defenders do their jobs and bounce running back Chris Ivory to the outside.



With Ivory bouncing laterally to the defensive strong side, Rob Ninkovich becomes the force contain defender on the play. By staying square to the ball carrier and not straying too far wide, Ninkovich is able to set a decent edge and also shed the block of the tackle to boot.

Although not a factor in the end result, Chandler Jones demonstrates a near perfect example of setting the edge as he squeezes the hole and maintains leverage to the outside on the backside of the play.



The work of Ninkovich limits the running lane between him and the nearest spill defender, which in turn allows the alley defender, Patrick Chung, to fit into the gap and take Ivory head on. The end result is a minimal 3-yard gain and what would turn out to be a rare win for the run defense on the night.

When each defender does. his. job. and makes correct reads, employs proper adjustments, and executes fundamentals, an offense’s opportunities for a successful run can evaporate quickly. For the balance of this series, beginning with Part 2, we’ll explore the darker side: the ramifications of failure to fill, flow, and set the edge.

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.

Follow Brian on Twitter @Brian_Filipiak.

Brian Filipiak knows about proper blocking technique, the basics of run defense, how to defeat an overload, and the point-of-attack.

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