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Stopping the Run Key for New England Patriots

Courtesy of USA Today
Even before you talk about the statistics, last year's New England Patriots defense was one of the worst in recent memory. It honestly might have been the worst of Bill Belichick's tenure, and it hit rock bottom in the Super Bowl. As godly as Tom Brady is, even he couldn't overcome a performance like that; though he came pretty darn close.

There are several areas the Patriots can improve upon defensively, the most important though is the rush defense. The one thing you could always rely on defensively was New England's ability to stop the run. Not the case last year. The Patriots were 20th in the league in rush defense, and even that feels high if you watched them consistently. They were gashed all season long, and it didn't stop in the playoffs. That number absolutely has to improve this year.

You think that number is bad, time to shield your eyes Pats fans. Last year, the Patriots were dead last in yards allowed per drive, and second to last in number of plays allowed per drive. They were 21st in time of possession per opponent's drive, 27th in percentage of drives resulting in three and outs and 21st in third down defense. Simply put, the defense struggled to get off the field last year; showcased by the 0 punts forced in the Super Bowl.

The more the defense is on the field, the less Brady is. That puts more pressure on Brady and the offense to score when they are out there. When the margin for error is that small, they can press a little bit and get a little too aggressive, which can take them out of their comfort zone and lead to more mistakes.

Given the personnel changes, the offense will not be as explosive as in years past. They will still be a top 10 offense at the end of the year but it probably won't feel that way from watching them. Brady and company are going to need as many opportunities to get on the field as they can get, especially during the first four weeks. That falls on the defense.

The biggest improvements need to be made with the play of the front seven. The return of Dont'a Hightower should provide a big boost. The key will be keeping him on the field. New England also traded for veteran defensive tackle Danny Shelton, who should improve the defensive line play. The team is also counting on the continued improvement from Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler, two guys who had strong seasons last year.

Pass rush is another area where the team can improve. Honestly though, that has been an issue for the Patriots for a while. They've managed to get by without a top tier pass rush. They do have some talented individual pass rushers, so I would expect an improvement this year.

Trey Flowers has shown some ability to get to the quarterback. The team brought in Adrian Clayborn who had 9.5 sacks last year; granted six of those came in one game, but I prefer to view that as a positive. Deatrich Wise enters his second year after a solid rookie season in which he had seven sacks combined in the regular season and playoffs. Also, Derek Rivers is healthy and ready to contribute this year. The pass rush I think will be okay. The Patriots actually had the seventh most sacks as a team last year.

Sure, the numbers also show that the pass defense was worse than the rush defense last year -- 30th in yards allowed per game, 17th in opposing quarterback's passer rating -- but good play from the front seven can impact that. Plus, Stephon Gilmore appeared to have turned a corner at the end of last year, and just having one shutdown corner can do wonders for the pass defense. It can limit the amount of space an offense has to operate. He was easily the teams best defender in the Super Bowl. Also, if your front seven can stop the run, you can dedicate more guys to pass coverage.

For a long time, the Patriots best defense has been Brady. His ability to put points on the board makes opposing offenses one-dimensional because they're usually playing catch-up. As a matter of fact, the Patriots defense was second in the league in terms of average lead at the start of a drive (6.57). Meaning on average, every time they took the field they were basically up a touchdown. I wouldn't count on that being the case this year. The defensive play has to improve.

Last year, the Patriots took the phrase "bend don't break" to a whole new level. While the team ranked 29th in terms of yards allowed per game last season, they were 5th in points allowed. Ultimately, points allowed is the only stat that matters. At the end of the day, as a Pats fan, you'll probably take 400+ yards allowed, if it only results in 17 points. You have the confidence that Brady and the offense will be able to score 20. However, if your allowing long, time-sustaining drives, you're not giving the offense many chances to get to 20 points.

There were some injuries to the defense last year, most notably Hightower, and that certainly caused some problems. However, last year's defensive performance cannot be chalked up to Hightower's absence alone. There were plenty of area on this team that need to improve this year, or else it's going to be another disappointing finish. Stopping the run is priority number one.

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