This isn’t the most exciting topic, but it could go down as the No. 1 reason for who wins between the Patriots and Saints on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
Who can stop the run?
Run defense isn’t sexy. In fact, those piles are more like a dumpster-dive. It’s not going to get the hot take people going. You won’t hear Stephen A. Smith squawk into a microphone for eight minutes about gap control. But to be a tough, winning football team, it’s essential.
The Patriots need to be better at it than they were in Weeks 1-2. And that needs to start on Sunday, against Saints All-Pro running back Alvin Kamara.
“I feel like if you were to maybe try to build a perfect back, he essentially has everything you need: vision, balance, he’s strong, he’s tough,” said linebacker Dont’a Hightower. “However you want to give him the ball, you can give it to him, whether it’s screens, throwing it to him, you want to hand it off, he’s just a really good player, explosive. You can hand off a ball to him and expect maybe a 3-, 4-yard run and he’ll turn it into a 75-yard touchdown. He’s just that type of player.”
New Orleans is coming off a disappointing outing against the Panthers, a 26-7 loss in which Kamara gained just eight yards in five carries and particularly struggled to run between the tackles. But the Patriots have had their issues stopping the run up the middle. So something’s gotta give there.
On the other side is a Saints run defense that ranks second in the league with only 2.8 yards allowed per carry. They limited Christian McCaffrey to just three yards per attempt last week. In 2020, they ranked fifth in defensive yards/carry (3.9) and allowed the third-fewest rushing touchdowns (11). Defensive tackles Malcolm Roach, Christian Ringo, and Shy Tuttle aren’t household names, but they’re effective, and DeMario Davis is one of the better run-stopping linebackers in the league.
“They’re a physical front,” left tackle Isaiah Wynn said this week. “All their guys on the defensive front, they’re big, they’re long, they’re powerful. They’re just a good defensive front, so we’re going to be looking forward to stepping up to the challenge this week.”
Much of the scrutiny about the Patriots’ run defense has centered on defensive tackles Lawrence Guy and Davon Godchaux, but it hasn’t been much better on the edges, either. The Patriots rank 31st and 32nd, respectively, in average yards allowed per carry to the left end (9.0) and left tackle (7.8), according to NFL Game Stats and Info. Only with runs to the right tackle have the Patriots allowed fewer than four yards per attempt (0.42).
Run defense isn’t really about scheme, like it could be for pass-rushing. It’s about fundamentals and execution. And that goes for everyone on the field. If they can limit Kamara on Sunday, that’ll be a great sign for their overall toughness and effectiveness as a defense.
“It takes all 11,” said Godchaux. “Everybody wants to single out this guy and that guy, but it takes all 11 guys. Like I said, 11 guys get to the football, gang-tackle, and the run defense I think will be good. It’s no individual thing, it’s all about a team and 11 guys. I think If we do that this week, we’ll have a great chance.”