New England Patriots

New England Patriots

  • Every play of every American football game starts in the trenches, and often ends there as well. For the New England Patriots and Detroit Lions, their ground games on both sides of the ball have added importance on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.

    This game could very well come down to some good-old-fashioned trench warfare.

    That’s fitting, with the Patriots set to wear their glorious red throwback uniforms, but also with military buff Bill Belichick going up against kneecap-biting sideline general Dan Campbell. The Patriots got their running game rolling in Week 4 against the Green Bay Packers, yet have struggled to stop the run in recent weeks. Likewise, the Lions can really move the ball on offense, but are allowing the most yards per carry in the league (5.6) through four weeks. Something’s gotta give, here.

    “They have a good scheme with a good, balanced attack,” Belichick said Wednesday on the Lions. “They set it up so that if you’re stopping one thing, you can’t stop the complementary play that goes with it, whether it’s a complementary run or complementary pass. They execute well. Their backs are good. They make a lot of yards on their own. Some of those plays are not blocked for the amount of yardage that they get. The backs go and break tackles or make guys miss at level two so the eight-yard gain. A couple of those 50 yard gains could’ve been eight or could’ve been 10.

    “It’s good running or poor tackling, whatever way you want to look at it. They let up a lot of extra yards. Tackling is going to be a big issue in this game.”

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  • Belichick seemed to recognize the Patriots’ tackling issues against the run, particularly at inside linebacker, and showed urgency to fix it by re-signing Jamie Collins off the street. The Patriots have allowed 287 rushing yards (4.7 per carry) and two touchdown runs over the last two weeks, and some of that can be attributed to shaky gap control at the second level.

    Week 3 against the Ravens was unique, because they had to try to contain quarterback Lamar Jackson. Spoiler alert: they did not. Jackson rushed 11 times for 107 yards and a touchdown in that game. Week 4 in Green Bay was against more of a traditional rushing attack, but the Pats again struggled to slow down dynamic backs Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon, who combined for 33 carries and 183 yards, a 5.5-yard average.

    It doesn’t figure to get much easier against the Lions.

  • When The Lions Run The Ball…

    So what can the Pats expect on Sunday against Detroit? The Lions’ ground game may often look familiar to Patriots fans, because they run a lot of gap-based schemes. It’s likely you’ll see a lot of pulling guards and tackles, and hat-on-hat power up the middle. They have a very talented offensive line, headlined by All-Pro center Frank Ragnow and a pair of first-round tackles in Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell.

    Jamaal Williams’ 51-yard touchdown against the Seahawks last week was a great example of how the Lions can really make things happen up front. Watch left guard Dan Skipper (yes, that’s Patriots legend Dan Skipper) pull right and spring Williams to the second level, while the rest of the line takes care of their matchups. Ditto tight end T.J. Hockenson, who is emerging as one of the best dual-threat tight ends in the league.

    Williams also gets credit for a nice stiff-arm here, but this is too easy:

  • In light of the Lions’ offensive line and how they’re playing this season, Sunday will be a huge test for the Patriots’ defensive interior, especially if Lawrence Guy (shoulder injury) still can’t play. Davon Godchaux, Christian Barmore, and perhaps Daniel Ekuale will be tasked with clogging gaps, and cannot let the Lions push them around up front, or they could get gashed like the Seahawks did.

    When The Patriots Run The Ball…

    Here is where the game gets even more interesting: as good as the Lions have been running the ball, they’ve struggled to stop the run, and in similar ways to the Patriots. They’ve been undisciplined and over-aggressive in the front-seven, and the Seahawks took advantage of that last Sunday.

    Rashaad Penny ran for two long touchdowns in the second half against the Lions, and both times the Seahawks exploited the Lions’ lack of discipline. His first touchdown run came on an attempted blitz, which vacated the second level entirely. And at the same time, defensive end Aidan Hutchinson got caught overpursuing, which gave Penny the opening he needed in the B gap (between the guard and tackle). From a shotgun handoff to the end zone.

  • Penny’s second touchdown was a bit of misdirection. Penny lined up to the left of quarterback Geno Smith on third-and-5, but took the handoff and went right, following the pulling left tackle and left guard. The Lions’ entire front-seven bit inside, and so Penny has a free lane around the right edge and takes it all the way.

  • Can the Lions sew up those discipline problems within one week? Unlikely. They blitz 37.6 percent of the time, according to Pro Football Reference, the third-highest mark in the league. And, especially if it’s rookie Bailey Zappe making his first career start, you can bet Detroit will want to make him uncomfortable.

    The question for the Patriots: can the offensive staff recognize those blitzes and exploit it like the Seahawks did? The Lions essentially got beat on those long runs by play-calling. This is a huge week for Matt Patricia, not just because he’s going up against his former team that (probably) hates him, but because his play-calls could make the difference between success and failure, particularly in the run game.

    Their confidence in the run game does seem to be growing, after a tumultuous training camp in that area.

    “It’s just repetition with the run game, new playbook, things like that, so we had a couple new run plays, so just everybody getting comfortable, just repetition and just getting comfortable running those plays,” running back Rhamondre Stevenson said this week. “The O-line’s working super-hard. … It’s really on them, they make the run game go.”

  • But What About The Passing Game?

    DETROIT, MICHIGAN - OCTOBER 02: Jared Goff #16 of the Detroit Lions passes the ball during the second quarter against the Seattle Seahawks at Ford Field on October 02, 2022 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

    DETROIT, MICHIGAN – OCTOBER 02: Jared Goff #16 of the Detroit Lions passes the ball during the second quarter against the Seattle Seahawks at Ford Field on October 02, 2022 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

    As good as the Lions’ running offense has been, you can’t forget about Jared Goff through the air. He’s off to a hot start with 11 touchdown passes and a 99.9 passer rating. A big reason for that has been the offensive line’s ability to protect him. They’ve allowed just five sacks so far this season, second-fewest in the NFL.

    The Patriots have also struggled to cover tight ends in the passing game in recent weeks, and now have to deal with Hockenson, who’s coming off a career game with eight catches for 179 yards and two touchdowns against Seattle.

    But this seems more simple than the run defense: get pressure on Goff and sell out to stop Hockenson. Try to force Goff to beat you with quick decisions and throws to receivers Josh Reynolds and Khalif Raymond (Amon-Ra St. Brown appears unlikely to play). Easier said than done against that O-line, but eyes will be on Patriots linebacker Matthew Judon as much as anyone on Sunday, for that reason.

    “We’ve just got to play better defense all-around,” Judon said Thursday. “When you give up yards like that, it’s not one thing, it’s all-around. So, that’s what we’ve got to do.”

    Still, this game could still be decided on the ground. Who can run the ball better? That’s perfect timing for throwback week. Dig your foxholes, ladies and gentlemen. It’s war.

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  • Matt Dolloff is a writer and podcaster for Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff and follow him on Instagram @realmattdolloff. Check out all of Matt’s content here.

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